How NOT to write about sexual assault.

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It’s been a few days since news of Daniel Holtzclaw, the Oklahoma City police officer accused of targeting 8 black women and sexually assaulting them, has hit the internet. It is a nauseating, rage-inducing melange of violence, racism, and public malfeasance. No one knows exactly why it took so long for Holztclaw to be arrested, but you can probably assume a large part is, in fact, due to the color of his victims. Holtzclaw thoroughly researched them, many of whom had been previously arrested for minor offenses. He’s currently out on bail and on house arrest until his mid-September court date.

The coverage, while scant, has been pretty straightforward. The HuffPo writeup gives a brief overview of the case, focusing more on the fact that Holtzclaw successfully petitioned to get his $5 million bail reduced to $500,000. ThinkProgress does the same, adding that women, too, are often victims of police violence. The Daily Mail’s writeup focuses on the now-defunct GoFundMe started in support of Holtzclaw.

And then we get to Buzzfeed’s contribution. (TW: Graphic description of sexual assault.)

Buzzfeed’s Jessica Testa (she of the last spring’s ConsentGate) fumbles again, going into excruciating, unnecessary detail of the eight sexual assaults Holtzclaw committed. It’s graphic. It’s salacious. It’s a better fit for Penthouse Forum than an organization rapidly gaining mainstream legitimacy. I cannot, for the life of me, understand how this is being heralded as “brave reporting” when the piece has little regard for the victims mentioned.

Covering sexual assault is a delicate task. It leaves little room for error or inaccuracy. It’s a nasty job, but a necessary one, and thankfully there are writers who take their ethics seriously. There’s a fine line between reporting the facts and exploiting the victims for page views. It doesn’t appear that Testa reached out to the victims, instead relying on court testimony and police records. To be fair, it would’ve been a bit difficult to do so, unless the victims reached out to her first. The police never release the names of sexual assault victims to the public. Still, if I were one of those victims? I couldn’t imagine logging on to see the gory details of my sexual assault thrown up for public consumption.

Columbia University’s Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma cautions reporters to “think about the language” when writing stories of rape and assault. “Sexual violence is both deeply personal and something that has winder public policy implications.” The site also stresses that reporters try to strike a balance when deciding how much graphic detail to include because not doing so runs the risk of traumatizing the victims.

The site also suggests that reporters reach out to victims, giving them the opportunity to look at the final draft before it’s published. Or, at the very least, giving them a heads up as a way to soften the blow. Again, that may have been impossible to do in this case. Perhaps Testa could’ve eased up on the graphic descriptions and found a way to humanize the victims. Perhaps she could’ve contrasted the treatment of Holtzclaw with other alleged offenders. There were many, many angles to take. I’m not sure why the writer went with the most potentially painful one.

Jamie Nesbitt-Golden

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