Significant media attention has been focused on the explosive accusations of sexual assault and misconduct recently leveled against some of the most powerful men in entertainment and politics. As story after story has been broken — from Harvey Weinstein to Kevin Spacey to Louis CK — the voices of those victimized by sexual violence have reached the ears of international audiences.
More disturbing still is that many of these highly publicized outcries are paralleled by the experiences of the people around us. The social media campaign #MeToo has emboldened hundreds of our peers to share that they have been victims of sexual violence and harassment. Tamsyn Riddle’s human rights complaint against Trinity College and the University of Toronto for allegedly mishandling her sexual assault case is still ongoing. Around the same time the CK story came out, one of The Varsity’s masthead members received a wholly unsolicited pornographic photo from another student.
Sexual violence is not limited to what is portrayed by international headlines: it is a nefarious reality that will affect most people in some way during their lives. It is also something that has proven very difficult to talk about for many people. These cases involve vulnerable persons and deeply intrusive information, not to mention facts that can be muddled by stereotypes and by the competing interests of the implicated parties.
It is the media who are given the incredibly important task of consolidating the facts into a narrative, of informing the public in the way that is both ethical and true. In light of the sensitive nature of sexual violence cases, journalists must critically examine the means by which they carry out their duties in this respect.
On November 15, in partnership with Silence is Violence, The Varsity hosted a panel entitled “Responsible Reporting on Sexual Violence.” Led by Globe and Mail reporter Robyn Doolittle, Toronto Life writer Lauren McKeon, and activist and co-founder of grassroots organization femifesto Shannon Giannitsopoulo, the discussion centred on how media professionals can adopt appropriate reporting practices and reconcile any legal or ethical conflicts they encounter.
In the Unfounded series Doolittle spearheaded at the Globe, it was revealed that one in five claims of sexual assault in Canada are dismissed by police as baseless. While some complaints may indeed have been unfounded, in other cases, blatant negligence or misogyny on the part of police forces — such as in the famous case of Doe v. Metropolitan Toronto Commissioners of Police — have left complainants out in the cold, aggravating feelings of fear or mistrust when dealing with police in general.
When complainants do not feel comfortable dealing with police, or they feel as if their cases are not being taken seriously, the media can play a role in helping them achieve justice. In this sense, journalists are often known both for blowing the whistle on powerful people and for battling against efforts being made to bury the hatchet.
The Harvey Weinstein case is particularly galling given the complicity and wilful blindness demonstrated by Weinstein’s many enablers, and the lengths to which the producer went to cover up his actions. In a follow-up to his original exposé in The New Yorker, Ronan Farrow revealed that Weinstein had enlisted ex-Mossad agents to get close to some of his victims and mine them for information, sometimes under the guise of being women’s rights advocates. Journalists who were in dogged pursuit of Weinstein, including Jodi Kantor of The New York Times and Farrow himself, were also targeted by Weinstein for investigation.
Given the influence of the media in shaping people’s perceptions of events, journalists must ensure that their work does not further contribute to the conditions that can make coming forward about sexual violence so difficult. At the same time, many people are genuinely concerned about the influence media coverage might have on the public’s perception of accused persons. What is often alluded to in this regard is the presumption of innocence under section 11(d) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which requires the accused to be presumed innocent until the Crown can prove the charges against them beyond a reasonable doubt and before an independent and impartial tribunal.
The presumption of innocence is an important and often misconstrued idea that, in the context of sexual assault cases, squarely applies to representatives in the criminal justice system. Given that the media is neither a criminal law institution nor a representative of the government, it does not owe the accused the same right; rather, it finds its obligations within defamation law, an entirely different set of standards.
Nevertheless, media professionals are also required to be watchful of baseless allegations — in acknowledgment that a false or misleading story can potentially ruin the life of the person about whom it is written. As Doolittle pointed out, journalists tend to be extremely cautious when writing about sexual assault, including through the use of words like ‘alleged’ or ‘accused’ when discussing claims yet to be confirmed by the courts.
Reporting on these stories can therefore involve a delicate balancing act, one often sorted out case by case. The discussion that took place at the panel last week provided insight into the steps journalists can take to ensure they are engaging in appropriate practices.
For one, journalists should be keenly aware of the impact stories might have on the people represented in them. Before publishing the Unfounded series, Doolittle gave each of her interviewees the option to be quoted anonymously or to withdraw from the story altogether. She was careful to emphasize the importance of explaining to complainants how their lives would be affected by going public with their stories.
Another point of caution pertains to language usage. In a guide entitled “Use the Right Words: Media Reporting on Sexual Violence in Canada,” femifesto advises journalists to omit details about the accused that might serve to imply that they are not ‘the type’ to commit such acts. This is to avoid the pitfalls of media attention centred on people like Brock Turner, a former Stanford student who was convicted of assault with intent to rape an intoxicated woman. Turner was often referred to in headlines as a “Stanford swimmer” rather than, for example, ‘the convicted felon.’
Finally, accusations made against certain people cannot be differentially treated on the basis of the institutions in which they work, or ‘the type’ of people we think they are. As allegations against Bill O’Reilly, Roger Ailes, Mark Halperin, and others have shown, the media itself is hardly immune to outbreaks of sexual misconduct. An anonymous spreadsheet entitled “SHITTY MEDIA MEN” — the virtual embodiment of a whisper network — circulated online last month, allowing women to document their disturbing experiences with men in the media. This means that journalists should not only take great care when reporting on the experiences of others, but they must also watch for any violence happening around them.
Reporting on sexual violence is an immensely important responsibility, and the integrity and critical self-reflection that must underlie journalistic practices in this regard cannot be understated. The sheer number of accused abusers and misogynists seemingly crawling out of the woodwork might make us enraged or pessimistic, particularly since so many stories festered for years before being brought to the surface. But as McKeon put it, the current momentum of these stories also provides journalists with an opportunity to shed light on those not being told.
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