Rape Headline Blasted
by Paul Bass | Apr 24, 2014 12:04 pm
Posted to: Media
An Independent teaser to a story in our sister publication in the Naugatuck Valley prompted a debate about how to package stories about rape.
The original story, in the Valley Independent Sentinel, was headlined, “Man Faces 8 Years For Derby Sex Assault.”
A link to that story appeared Wednesday in the Extra Extra column of the New Haven Independent. The link’s headline quoted the rape victim quoting her attacker: “Take It Like A Good Girl—Like A Whore.”
An Independent started a discussion on her Facebook page with a critique of the headline. She argued that it was painful to read and should have been accompanied by a “trigger” warning. Other readers joined in the discussion, unanimously condemning the headline as insensitive and sensationalistic. One “horrified” reader described the headline as “totally sensationalized”—“no better than link bait.” Wrote another: “What happens when you post a headline like that is that is works the same way a graphic movie or image might for someone with PTSD. For people who have been raped it forces them to relive it.”
I responded that I found the victim’s testimony chilling and moving—and important for people to read. I thought this story was about not just a jail sentence, but a poignant and important and courageous decision by a rape victim to describe what really happens. I wanted readers to know that this story was about more than a routine court decision I also argued that the press’s general policy of using euphemisms for the harsh language and actions involved in sexual harassment and assault ends up enabling attackers and their apologists to dismiss these horrific crimes as “no big deal.” I feel it’s important for the public to confront the reality of these crimes, including the brutality of the language involved.
That said, I also think the readers who commented on Facebook made excellent arguments. Editors regularly wrestle with how to handle profanity or hate speech—whether to convey the impact of the language by fully quoting it, or whether to avoid adding to the hurtful use of the language by publishing it. I shudder at the use of the word “kike,” for instance. Writing about the use of it in a criminal case, I would not publish the euphemisms that most media outlets use, such as “a four-letter epithet.” I would publish the word “kike” so readers can understand what exactly was said. On the other hand, it can become all too easy to decide to publish those words without taking into consideration the impact that publication has on victims—as readers have pointed out in the discussion about the rape headline.
What do you think? Register your opinion in our “True Vote” box.
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I’m all for being fair to victims of crime and being sensitive to their needs. However, in this case, I think the headline was appropriate for highlighting just how violent the perpetrator was in this case. Too often sexual assault victims become the ones on trial. We erroneously spend a lot of time and resources teaching young women how not to become victims of sexual assault without pouring an ounce into teaching young men how not to become perpetrators. Part of the reason we become desensitized to stories of violence and discrimination is because we like to “pretty it up” with polite code words. That’s dangerous. I applaud this very brave young woman for finding the strength to speak out and for reminding us how often people use their positions of power to intimidate and terrorize others. Kudos to this young woman and to the NHI for bringing this chilling story to our attention.
Well said! Without the details, I would have wondered just how much of this encounter was in fact a sexual assault. Even the man charged with the crimes changed his testimony (I believe that’s the word) after he heard the victims statement.
I also think this article might encourage other woman to take a stand and put people who commit such horrific crimes in prison.
posted by: Dan Kennedy on April 24, 2014 10:26am
Paul, it looks like you have since taken that headline down. But based on your description, it sounds like the only thing the reader saw was the headline — you’d have to click to read the story. Even if the story were right beneath the headline, you’re still asking people to digest an inflammatory quote before they see any of the context. It’s even more difficult if the story is a click away. So no, I don’t think you should have run the headline, your good intentions notwithstanding. Perfectly fine to use the quote in the story.
posted by: Dan Kennedy on April 24, 2014 11:39am
Since posting my earlier comment, I’ve learned that the following line appeared below the headline: “In tears on the stand, rape victim recalls attack by allegedly mobbed-up nightclub boss — leading to a plea deal. Ethan Fry reports.” That’s better, although I still think it’s preferable for the reader to encounter the inflammatory quote within the full context of the story rather than in a headline.
“I feel it’s important for the public to confront the reality of these crimes, including the brutality of the language involved.”
I appreciate the intent. But this shows a serious lack of understanding of how many (mostly) women are personally affected by sexual assault, and how many live with a daily awareness of it—the fear of being raped, the memory of being raped, or both. It’s not something we need to be made MORE aware of.
I’m one of the people participating in that conversation on Facebook. The headline upset me personally. I want to explain why, to help Mr. Bass and others understand.
I’m lucky—I’ve never been raped. Groped, harassed, left alone in a dark building with someone I later learned was well-known as an assaulter…yup. Pretty standard experiences for a woman, unfortunately.
But the scariest experience I ever had was the time I was cornered and couldn’t make myself get away. He was a small, older man, not threatening looking, until he backed me against a wall. He stroked my hair and asked me, where’s your man? you got a man? etc, etc.
Practically speaking, I wasn’t trapped—I could get around him. There were other people nearby, including a dear friend, a man I’d trusted with my life. I could have yelled, run away, punched the guy…
But I didn’t. I wasn’t physically trapped, I was psychologically trapped. I already felt awkward about my position in this man’s neighborhood. I didn’t want to offend him. I didn’t want to seem racist. I didn’t want to be rude. I didn’t want to be mean.
I wanted to be a good girl.
So when I read the words “take it like a good girl” this morning, that’s what I remembered. In a split second, I again felt trapped, helpless, stupid, gross. All day my mind has returned to this thing that happened five years ago. That’s how trauma works, and it’s much more intense, even debilitating for people whose experiences were worse than mine.
We don’t need you to make us aware of how bad rape is, Mr. Bass.
- Laura McMillan
So what can the Independent do in the future? Many publications are starting to use “trigger warnings” for sexual assault, eating disorders, self-harm, and various other subjects often connected to trauma. Just the act of letting readers know what to expect can give us a moment to mentally prepare ourselves, or let sensitive readers choose to not read further.
An even easier method is simply to use non-sensationalistic headlines that will let readers know what to expect. Something like “Emotional Testimony Lead to Plea Deal in Rape Case” would actually give readers a better idea of the story, and let readers decide for themselves if they want to read more.
I would suggest it might be very productive for Mr. Bass to bring in a sexual assault crisis counselor, professor who studies trauma or women’s studies, or some other professional with expertise in this field to talk with the staff and editors about how to write about these issues responsibly. With some consideration, it’s absolutely possible to write about difficult societal issues in ways that both respect people affected, and get the point across powerfully.
Thank you, Laura, for speaking out. I am glad to know I wasn’t alone in reading that headline and immediately being overcome with anxiety and nausea.
Writing is very personal, and everyone has their own style and self-created rules that guide their voice. In situations where we use our writing to shock, impact, or teach, let us not forget that sometimes that impact hits others differently than we intended.
This is such an important discussion to have with members of the press and I’m glad that Paul and the NHI crew are open to that discussion. They have a long way to go, but I trust that they will get there.
posted by: Dan Kennedy on April 25, 2014 8:54am
@generalmcmill: I really don’t like the idea of trigger warnings. In this case, there doesn’t seem to be any controversy over Ethan Fry’s use of the quote in his story because it appears in context. It just didn’t belong as the headline — that’s all.
Well…it’s rather beside the point whether any particular individual “likes” trigger warnings or not. They can be a useful tool. But a different headline, that makes it clear the article will be about sexual assault, serves the same purpose: providing a little warning so readers can decide whether or not they’re up for encountering more visceral writing about rape. I agree using the quote in the context of the article is reasonable.