On the Media and Sexual Violence: a Panel at DePaul University

As I wrote the other day, last week was a very full week.

So full, in fact, that I’m still catching up on creating the space to blog about it.

On Tuesday I was part of a panel at Loyola University with Frank Ochberg and Julia Lieblich about how to cover issues of trauma and violence.

On Thursday I represented Hoy and the Dart Society by participating in a panel at DePaul University sponsored by the Chicago Taskforce about the media and sexual violence.

It was a powerful experience.

I spoke first and talked about the process I went through during a project I did about child sexual abuse for The Chicago Reporter.

Specifically, I talked about the steps I took before, during and after the project to educate and sensitize myself about how to most effectively and compassionately find, interact and follow up with the young women who had been abused and who agreed to be subjects for our story.

I also showed a short clip of a video I made with Vincent and Bolo, two young men from the West Side who I had met on a previous project about chronic unemployment in their neighborhoods and three surrounding communities.

The clip I showed started at the 6:50 mark and focused on the healing part of the these three women’s journeys.  Interestingly, each one of them used a different art form as a vehicle to heal themselves and share their experience with other people.

Jenny Vanderploeg from the Chicago Rape Crisis hotline went next.

She spoke about Vicious Assault Shakes Texas Town, a New York Times article from March 2011 about a group of young men who repeatedly gang raped an 11-year-old girl over the course of a couple of months, eventually being discovered after a classmate of the girl’s saw a cell phone video some of the abusers had recorded.

Jenny’s presentation focused on what she felt were a number of victim blaming statements and attitudes in the piece.  Specifically, she identified the privileging of concern about the impact on the perpetrators’ lives over that of the victim, language about the girl’s dress and looking older than her years, and questions about where the victim’s mother was as problematic.

The outcry over the article prompted a pair of editorial responses and a subsequent, longer piece written by the same reporter and a female colleague who was added to the reporting team.

Jenny went over that, too, finding progress and continued problems.

Among the flaws: the implied connection between the town’s poverty and the gang rape.

Jenny said the idea that these acts exclusively happen in poor neighborhoods is a myth.

Rape Victim Advocates Executive Director Sharmili Majmudar took up the theme of myths about sexual violence in her section of the panel.

She identified language that commonly appears in articles like the second New York Times piece that imply a consensual interaction.

She was talking about phrases like “had sex with” or “performed” or “engaged in.”

Such language is both inaccurate and dangerous, she said, because it normalizes and eroticizes sexual violence.

She also was critical of media for not being sufficiently explicit in its language about what happens in sexual assault.

Some people might put down the paper because of their revulsion toward reading what has happened.

But that is the precisely the point, she said.

The actions are revolting.

Sharmili also made the important point that short, three-paragraph articles can also have the result of bolstering myths about sexual assault and rape.

More broadly, she spoke about the consequences of inaccurate coverage both for the individual victim and the accompanying difficulties it creates for advocates and others like her who are trying to speak about what can and should be done to reduce sexual assault levels.

Daisy Zamora was the final speaker.

A burgeoning teacher, if I understood correctly, she talked about a campaign she and other had waged against a local radio station to take down offensive imagery of women in their advertisements.

She also talked about she and other members of her group taking matters into their own hands by writing and blogging and publishing their own thoughts on this and other issues.

The presentations led to a half hour discussion that included deep personal sharing and thought-provoking questions and answers.

We wrapped up around 8:00 p.m., but not before I had plenty of material for reflection and a serious reminder of our responsibility as journalists to do right and good by these issues and the people and communities affected by them.

If Tuesday’s panel was about supporting colleagues in how to cover issues of trauma and violence, Thursday’s event was a potent opportunity to learn anew about language’s power and our work’s consequences.

Sharmili said her organization is working on a media kit with pointers about how to cover the issue that will be ready for publication in the next couple of months.

I’m confident we’ll be in touch before then.

In the meantime, though, I’m grateful for the chance to be part of the circle that came together to discuss these vital issues that all too often are either not covered at all, or, when they are tackled, unfortunately are done in a way that sheds more darkness than light.




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