Writing About Gender-Based Violence & Title IX: A Guide for Journalists & Editors

Photo courtesy of Dana Bolger

Photo courtesy of Dana Bolger

As gender-based violence on college campuses gains increasing national attention, members of Know Your IX and the broader Title IX activist movement frequently have been asked to speak to the media about their activism and their experiences as survivors. Based on those experiences, Know Your IX has assembled a guide for reporters and editors who are covering gender-based violence, particularly on college campuses.

Think critically about the stories that you’re choosing to showcase.

For instance:

  • LGBTQ people, especially trans people, and women of color are disproportionately affected by sexual violence. Is that being reflected in the survivor stories that you’re choosing to highlight?
  • Think about which institutions you’re focusing on. Stories about Title IX violations at “elite” universities have dominated the media coverage surrounding Title IX and sexual assault, but it’s also important to cover stories at public universities, community colleges, and technical colleges.
  • Are you covering forms of gender-based violence other than rape, such as stalking, sexual harassment, and intimate partner violence? A 2011 survey found that “43% of dating college women report experiencing violent and abusive dating behaviors including physical, sexual, tech, verbal or controlling abuse.” It’s critical that these abusive behaviors (and the institutional abuses that often follows them, on the part of schools) also receive media coverage.

Contextualize gender-based violence.

Although individual survivors’ stories are a valuable way to build an engaging narrative, focus on individual stories can obfuscate the fact that gender-based violence, and the lack of enforcement of students’ civil rights on college campuses, is systemic. One piece about campus sexual assault did this by including a particular survivor’s experience but still emphasized the structural and institutional failings at work throughout the piece, stating explicitly, “Michigan State was chosen out of a lengthy list of schools not because Maya’s case was extraordinary, but rather because it best represented the pattern across the country: Michigan State is the median.”

Remember: Title IX is about civil rights, not criminal justice.

Before asking a survivor or activist why they didn’t report to the police instead of using the university disciplinary system, read Know Your IX’s guide, “Why schools handle sexual violence reports.”

Avoid language that places the burden (grammatical or otherwise) on the survivor.

Journalists disproportionately use the passive voice (i.e. “He was raped”) when talking about sexual assault in comparison to other crimes; research has shown that this practice correlates positively with rape myth acceptance and with perceived responsibility of the victim. Make sure you’re using active-voice constructions throughout.

Similarly, don’t refer to the survivor as “the accuser” and the perpetrator as “the accused,” as “accuser” carries negative connotations and grammatically places the action upon the survivor, rather than the rapist. Instead, use more neutral language—if you have permission to use the survivor’s name, refer to the survivor by their name throughout. Otherwise, use descriptors such as “the survivor” or “the student,” or consider using a pseudonym.

Be wary of using gendered physical descriptions or observations.

Describing a college student’s personal style is useful in a style section, and you may think that it’s a way of providing a visual scene for your readers, but when writing about gender-based violence, consider: If you were writing a piece about male student activists, would you open a magazine cover story with an in-depth description of his outfit, down to the color of his nail polish? Research shows that the media’s descriptive focus on a woman’s appearance, regardless if it’s positive or well-intentioned, negatively colors the reader’s perception of the woman if she’s a feminist or a politician. Given the prevalence of rape myths surrounding a woman’s clothing choices, using physical descriptions of a sexual assault survivor’s clothing can be especially detrimental and trivializing.

Respect the survivor’s narrative.

For instance:

      • Use direct quotes from survivors, rather than paraphrasing their accounts, as much as possible. Direct quotes allow the survivor to retain control over the narrative of their personal experiences, which is crucial for survivors, especially those who have been revictimized by disbelieving/dismissive administrators or police departments. It will also help prevent you from accidentally leaving out details that the survivor considers important or from misrepresenting their experiences. The Columbia Spectator’s approach provides a helpful example: When the paper first covered Emma Sulkowicz’s “Carry That Weight” project, it presented it as a video, allowing Emma to talk about her project and about her assault uninterrupted. Using direct quotes also allows you to avoid using the term “allegedly”. As the Chicago Taskforce on Violence Against Girls and Women points out in its excellent “Reporting on Rape and Sexual Violence” toolkit (also a valuable resource for reporters looking to improve their media coverage of sexual violence), the terms “alleged” or “allegedly” carry a host of negative and positive connotations and cast unwarranted doubt in the readers’ mind as to the validity of the survivors’ story. So long as you credit the survivors’ stories to them, there shouldn’t be any legal obligation to use the term “allegedly.”
  • Respect the language and terminology that the survivor uses. For example, if a survivor consistently refers to their attacker as “my abuser,” reflect that language in your story; don’t refer to the attacker as “an ex-boyfriend,” “a peer,” etc. Similarly, if a survivor refers to their experience as “dating violence,” don’t re-label it “sexual assault.”
  • Don’t sensationalize. Campus gender-based violence is bad. You should never trivialize the harm, but you also don’t need to linger unhelpfully on lurid details or exaggerate the impact on the victim.
  • Allow the survivor to have prior review. Not all publications allow sources to have prior review; if your publication has a policy against letting sources read a story before publication, talk to your editor/highers-up about making an exception for stories about sexual assault survivors. This will help the survivor feel more comfortable with you and will give them the chance to point out any important details that are misrepresented or excluded.
  • Ask the survivor for their pronouns. This is a simple way to ensure you’re correctly identifying a survivor, and takes a short moment. People’s gender identities and expressions may shift over time or they may become more comfortable sharing parts of their identity publicly. Just because you may think you know someone’s pronouns or lack thereof by their appearance, name, or previous mentions in the media, doesn’t mean you know how they want to be identified now. Resources like The Trans Student Educational Resources provide more information on this.

Don’t give false rape reports and sexual assault equal weight; this is false equivalency.

The rate of false reports for rape is about the same as it is for other crimes (only 2-8% of rape reports are false) but journalists that feel obligated to include an example of a false report will mislead the reader’s perception of the rate of false reports. College students tend to believe that 50 percent of rape reports are false, and research shows that the media’s coverage of false rape reports (often dependent on the perpetrator’s account) contributes to victim-blaming attitudes within readers. If a defendant’s attorney or an administrator claims as a defense that false rape reports are rampant, either don’t include their quote (it’s misleading to include information that’s provably false) or, if you insist on including it, provide the reader with the information that false rape reports are rare and that rape is actually chronically underreported.

Be cognizant of, and sensitive to, mental health issues that can occur as a result of sexual assault.

According to the National Violence Against Women Prevention Research Center, about 31% of female rape survivors develop PTSD symptoms during their lifetime, and about 30% experience a major depressive episode. (By comparison, “only 10 percent of women never victimized by violent crime had ever had a major depressive episode.”) These are serious mental health problems that should be treated with dignity—not dismissed, as did one television report when talking about a survivor as “drowning in self-loathing.”

Also keep in mind that for for some survivors, especially dating violence and stalking survivors, your typical communication methods with sources (e.g. repeated and erratic phone calls and emails) may be reminiscent of abusers’ tactics. This can be intimidating and triggering for survivors — and may cause them to shut you out.

Be a respectful interviewer.

The Chicago Taskforce’s toolkit provides excellent guidelines on how to conduct an interview with a survivor (see in particular pages 7-9). Some additional points to consider:

  • Contact the survivor to request an interview as far ahead of your deadline as you can, if you want them to talk about their experiences. It can take a lot of emotional energy to relay traumatic experiences, so the more time that you can give a survivor to consider your offer and prepare for the interview, the better. Also, as mentioned above, continually emailing and calling a source may be normal when you’re trying to reach a politician while on a tight deadline (for example), but it can be triggering for survivors of stalking and dating violence.
  • Respect a survivor’s boundaries. If a survivor doesn’t want to share certain information or details you’d hoped to include, particularly about the violence or abuse itself, don’t push it.
  • Respect a survivor’s right to decline an interview, even if they’ve spoken to other news outlets. Retelling a story of gender-based violence can be exhausting, so even the most outspoken activists may need to take a break.

Further resources

Anna Walsh

We are not lawyers, and the information on this website does not constitute legal advice. We encourage you to contact a lawyer to discuss your complaint or suit.