Covering Sexual Assault in the Media

Owing to the way the media handle information, they exert an influence on the public understanding of sexual assault. The following journalism practices are recommended in cases of sexual assault. Several of these recommendations apply to anyone called on to play the role of spokesperson in media coverage of sexual assault.

Media coverage of sexual assault: preferred practices

Accurate information in order to ensure better understanding of sexual assault

  • Considering that the majority of the public gathers its knowledge about sexual assault from the media,9 it is important to present accurate information about this phenomenon.4
  • In order to foster better public understanding of sexual assault, several conditions must be met:

Publish or broadcast information about sexual assault16,17,18,19,20+

The media are the main source of information for a considerable portion of the public. They can help raise awareness in society and further understanding of sexual assault by placing stories of assault in a broader context. One way to do so is to publish or broadcast information about the prevalence and characteristics of sexual assault, the risk factors (causes) as well as the consequences for victims and society.

Consider sexual assault as a social phenomenon rather than as a private matter16,20,21+

Most sexual assault cases are covered in the media in the form of criminal justice items,22,23 thus tending to highlight the individual aspects of each case. By focusing more on the social causes and the major social costs involved, the media can raise public awareness that sexual assault is a public health problem that concerns all of society.  

Provide room for an unbiased representation of sexual assault20,24+

Try to avoid contributing to the over-representation in the media of sexual assaults that present uncommon or exceptional characteristics (e.g. particularly serious acts, assault accompanied by physical violence, unknown perpetrator, repeat offender, false sexual assault allegations, date rape drugs, etc.). Instead, whenever situations such as these must be reported, try to focus on only the most serious cases. It may also be worthwhile to stress their exceptional nature and to reiterate the most common types of sexual assault (i.e. statistics on the prevalence and characteristics of sexual assault).

Use reliable, credible sources regarding sexual assault16,18,20+

Using the accounts of people close to the individuals involved in a sexual assault is of limited value when it comes to providing the public with accurate information about this phenomenon. Instead, the recommended practice is to consult experts (e.g. social workers, researchers, etc.) in the field.

Use accurate, appropriate terminology when describing sexual assault16,18+

The language used to describe sexual assault should be as accurate as possible. The recommended practice is to avoid using terms that minimize sexual assault, leave room for misconceptions or suggest consent to the assault. For further details, see the section entitled Appropriate sexual assault terminology.

Publish or broadcast information that is free of sexism, prejudice and stereotypes

  • Any information presented in the media should refrain from spreading myths and stereotypes about sexual assault, men, and women in order to avoid sustaining unfounded prejudices among the public.4
  • There is a range of practices serving to publish or broadcast information that are free of sexism, prejudice and stereotypes:

Use accurate, appropriate terminology when describing sexual assault16,18+

The use of some words or turns of phrase is conducive to perpetuating prejudices regarding sexual assault and should be avoided accordingly. Here are a few examples:

Impulse control issues”: minimizes the responsibility of perpetrators and implies that they are unable to control their urges and that their problem amounts to too strong a sex drive.

“The perfect victim: perpetuates the notion that there is a profile of the typical victim (i.e. the victim is characterized by fragility and vulnerability).

“The accused purportedly caressed thealleged victim”: the words used to describe the actions committed during a sexual assault should reflect the criminal nature of the act. A caress is a sensual or affectionate form of touching intended to be pleasurable. Unwanted sexual touching is a criminal action.

For further details, see the section entitled Appropriate sexual assault terminology.

Use reliable, credible sources regarding sexual assault 16,20+

Using the accounts of people close to the individuals involved in a sexual assault is of limited value when it comes to providing the public with accurate information about this phenomenon. Instead, the recommended practice is to consult experts (e.g., social workers, researchers, etc.) in the field.

For example: “According to a friend, the accused was very fond of women but never could have committed the crime he was charged with.”

Avoid providing specifics that are not required for an understanding of events17+

Some information reported in descriptions of sexual assault is not always necessary for understanding the facts and may have the effect of minimizing or justifying the acts perpetrated or weakening the credibility of the allegations. Before reporting such information, ask yourself whether the public needs to know it or if instead it feeds prejudices or stereotypes concerning sexual assault.

For example: “The woman who brought charges was previously under the care of a psychiatrist.” This statement minimizes or affects the credibility of accusations.

For example: “The accused was himself a victim of child sexual abuse”: this statement suggests that sexually abused boys will turn into perpetrators of sexual assault and may have the effect of minimizing the acts perpetrated or absolving the perpetrators of responsibility for their actions.

Present objective information that avoids dramatization

  • Publishing or broadcasting information that lacks objectivity, dramatizes the situation or does not serve to further understanding of events may cause victims to apprehend being identified and discourage them from reporting out of fear that their situation will become public knowledge.18
  • Several professionals and experts agree that the media should present information regarding sexual assault objectively, in a non-sensational manner, without dramatizing or trivializing, without resorting to screaming headlines, and without misleading the audience.25,26 A range of practices is recommended for presenting objective information free of dramatic effects:

Use accurate, appropriate terminology when describing sexual assault18+

Several words or turns of phrase are likely to make an item sensationalistic or dramatic and should be avoided accordingly. Here are a few examples:

Language used for the purpose of dramatizing or sensationalizing

  • concerning the sexual assault (e.g. a sordid affair, heinous acts, unspeakable acts, a disgusting or appalling act)
  • concerning the motives of the perpetrator (e.g. a need to satisfy baser instincts, impulse issues, loss of self-control)
  • to describe the perpetrator (e.g. pervert or “perv”, sadist, torturer, sex creep)
  • to describe the victim (e.g. the perfect victim, the poor girl)

Avoid providing specifics that are not required for an understanding of events17,27+

  • Avoid publishing or broadcasting personal information about the victim (e.g. name, occupation, ethnic group, religion, sexual orientation, handicap, etc.) or his or her loved ones. Such information should circulate only if the people concerned want it to and if it is useful for understanding the event.26
  • Avoid publishing or broadcasting details about the events or detailed descriptions of sexual offences (e.g. an explicit photo or account of the method of assault, location of the crime).
  • Avoid including or disclosing details that contribute to victimizing the person yet again (e.g. humiliating or embarrassing details)
  • Avoid presenting dramatic or sentimental elements:
    • concerning the victim (e.g. victim in tears, victim overwhelmed, sobbing)
    • concerning the perpetrator (e.g. describing the man as appearing dejected, when he was arraigned) 

 

Dramatization :

Effects serving to exaggerate the seriousness of an event.

Sensationalism :

Arousing or intended to arouse strong feelings of curiosity, interest or admiration.

Encourager la recherche d’aide et faire connaître les ressources

  • Les médias sont parmi les moyens les plus importants pour faire connaitre les ressources d’aide. Ils sont donc incités à encourager la recherche d’aide et à faire connaitre à la population les ressources destinées aux victimes et aux personnes présentant des comportements d’agression sexuelle.
  • Informer sur les façons de venir en aide à une victime d’agression sexuelle et diffuser les ressources d’aide17 sont des pratiques à privilégier :

Provide information on how to help a victim17,27+

Whenever possible, provide the public with information and advice about how to protect children or help a sexual assault victim.

For example: what a person should do whenever he or she suspects that a child has been the victim of sexual abuse; how a person should respond to a child’s confidences; and how a person can provide support to a sexual assault victim.

Publicize support resources17,27+

Create awareness of resources and the kinds of assistance that are available in the community for sexual assault victims, people at risk of committing sexual assault, and the public at large.

 

Facts that argue in favour of better publicizing resources

Canadians in general appear to have only limited knowledge of the resources available to victims of crime, including sexual assault. Indeed, a study conducted by the Department of Justice Canada showed that most Canadians know little, if anything, about crime victim services (78%) and crime victim compensation programs (81%).28

However, the study also revealed that the media rank among the most important means by which the public finds out about victim services, with 36% of those surveyed stating that they learned about such services through the radio or television and 27% through newspapers.28 These findings show the important role that the media can play in creating awareness about the resources available to victims of crimes such as sexual assault.

Appropriate sexual assault terminology

  • In order to publish or broadcast accurate information about sexual assault, it is vital to use specific and context-appropriate terminology to describe these situations and the people involved.18,25.
  • The right use of the terms associated with sexual assault will enable the public to better grasp this problem.18 The following list contains various terms associated with sexual assault, some of which are used inappropriately or have become outmoded, while others should be avoided.

Sexual abuse +

This term is used within the framework of Québec’s Youth Protection Act (YPA). According to subparagraph d of the second paragraph of section 38 of the YPA, sexual abuse refers to “a situation in which the child is subjected to [or runs a serious risk of being subjected to] gestures of a sexual nature by the child's parents or another person, with or without physical contact, and the child's parents fail to take the necessary steps to put an end to the situation.”29. Strictly speaking, “sexual abuse” is not an offence covered by the Canadian Criminal Code, which instead refers to the main sexual offences involving minors as follows: sexual interference (s. 151), invitation to sexual touching (s. 152) and sexual exploitation (s. 153 and s. 153.1).

Perpetrator +

Refers to any individual who commits sexual assault, regardless of whether the victim is a minor.

Indecent assault +

This sexual offence was repealed in Canada in 1983 and replaced by the offence of sexual assault (s. 271, s. 272 and s. 273). Until that time, this offence was defined in terms of common assault targeting the victim’s sexual integrity and could refer to touching or penetration ― oral, digital or with objects ― of the vulva, vagina or anus.

Sex offender +

Refers to any individual who has been convicted of a criminal sexual offence.

Child sex offenders +

This term should be avoided. According to expert consensus, referring to children as “sex offenders” is inappropriate. Occasionally, children under the age of 12 commit sexual assault, most often on children younger than themselves (e.g. in Québec in 2009, 2% of persons accused of sexual offences reported to police were under the age of 12). That being said, it is acknowledged that children should not be labelled as “sex offenders”; instead, owing to their age and level of development, they should be considered as children with sexual behaviour problems directed at others.30,31 Nevertheless, the children against whom these sexual behaviours are committed can be considered as sexual abuse victims.

Sexual predator +

This term is usually employed pejoratively or to create a vivid impression when speaking of an individual who has committed several sexual assaults.32 As such, this term relies on an analogy with the hunter who stalks and hunts down prey to portray an individual who allegedly is constantly “on the prowl” for potential targets to sexually assault. However, such behaviour is typical of only a minority of perpetrators. Experts may refer to “predatory behaviour” among serial perpetrators of sexual assault as a way of discussing the methods used to spot and attack a potential unknown victim.33Nowadays, the term online predator pis used to refer to people who contact a minor over the Internet for the purpose of committing a sexual offence (i.e. luring a child by a means of telecommunication). The improper use of the term “sexual predator” can create the false impression among the public that most sexual assaults are committed by people who are not known to the victim and who seek out and choose their victim at random. In reality, however, this is the case of only a very small proportion of perpetrators.

Pedophile +

The term “pedophile” refers to a clinical diagnosis made by a qualified professional of an individual who is 16 years of age or older, who has an exclusive or non-exclusive sexual attraction to prepubescent children (usually less than 13 years of age) and who meets a specific set of criteria.34 The term pedophile is often mistakenly used in the general population to refer to any person who sexually abuses children. In reality, however, only a minority of perpetrators of child sexual abuse meet the diagnostic criteria of pedophilia.35

Rape +

In Canada, the offence of sexual assault (s. 271, s. 272 and s. 273) replaced that of rape in 1983. Since then, sexual assault has been framed in terms of both its violent and sexual nature. In addition, current legislation recognizes sexual assault between spouses and specifies that both women and men can be victims of sexual assault.36 Until 1983, rape was defined by sexual relations between a male over age 14 and a female; entailed vaginal penetration by the penis to even the slightest degree, even if no emission of semen had occurred; required that the female not be the perpetrator’s spouse (i.e. spousal immunity); and involved the absence of consent or the presence of vitiated consent.

Preparing for a media activity

The media activities organized by experts, professionals or organization spokespersons regarding sexual assault generate a sizeable portion of the information circulating publicly on this subject and are thus a choice source of information for both the public and decision-makers.

That being said, the media operate in a culture of communication specific to themselves and having its own “rules of the road”. This world may be off-putting to those unfamiliar with its ways, prompting them to decline requests for interviews and thereby depriving the public of a unique opportunity to learn more about sexual assault.

Maintaining good relations with the media requires having a good grasp of how they operate and being able to craft and convey a message effectively. Any person who is regularly called on to assume the role of spokesperson or speak out on events or trends involving sexual assault would be well advised to receive specific training in media relations.

In the meantime, here are some things to keep in mind when preparing for a media activity that could be useful for putting out information about sexual assault:

  • If your organization does not have a communications unit responsible for its press relations, you should make a point of getting answers to the following questions before you accept an interview request.37
    • Why have you received this interview request? Has it occurred following media coverage of an event, a tip-off, etc.? Ask what article or informant is behind this request.
    • What is it that the reporter (or researcher) wants to know or check exactly?
    • What kind of setting will the interview take place in? Will the interview be broadcast on a live or deferred basis, via telephone or in the studio?
    • How long will the interview last? You can choose to limit the length of an interview according to your needs and the message that you wish to put out.
    • If you believe that you are unable to reply to this interview request, refer the reporter or researcher to someone else.
  • It is critical that you take time to prepare for the interview. It is not advisable to respond immediately to an interview request. Instead, remember to note down the reporter’s contact information and re-contact him or her later. Here are some questions you should ask yourself as a way of preparing for an interview:
    • On whose behalf will I be speaking?
    • What message do I want to convey?
    • What is my target audience?
    • What impact am I seeking to achieve?
    • How will I get my message through?
  • During the media activity, use simple language, avoid jargon, specialist vocabulary and acronyms. Think CLIP ― clear, lively, informative and to-the-point.
  • Keep in mind the main messages that the public should know regarding sexual assault.

Remember: Everything you tell a reporter can be used. Avoid providing any information “off the record” that you do not wish to have published or broadcast.

 
 

References

  1. Thakker, J. (2006). News coverage of sexual offending in New Zealand, 2003. New Zealand Journal of Psychology, 35(1): 28-35.
  2. Bryant, J. and Zillmann, D. (1994). Perspectives on media effects: Advances in theory and research. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
  3. Everland, W.P. (2002). The impact of news and entertainment media on perceptions of social reality. In J.P. Dillard and M. Pfau, eds., The Persuasion Handbook: Developments in Theory and Practice (pp. 691-727). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
  4. World Health Organization (WHO). London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. (2010). Preventing intimate partner and sexual violence against women. Taking action and generating evidence. Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organization.
  5. Jewkes, R., Sen, P. and Garcia-Moreno, C. (2002). Sexual violence. In E.G. Krug, L.L. Dahlberg, J.A. Mercy, A. Zwi and R. Lozano-Ascencio, eds., World report on violence and health (pp. 147-181). Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organization
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  29. Youth Protection Act, R.S.Q., chapter P-34.1.
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  31. Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers - ATSA (2006). Report of the Task Force on Children with Sexual Behavior Problems
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