Speaker addresses media coverage of sexual assault


For many, sexual assault is a difficult subject to approach. On Thursday, however, several members of the Manhattan community joined together at the Manhattan Public Library to do just that with the help of Elana Newman.

Newman, research director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, discussed the dilemmas regarding sexual assault in the news, as well as what she said she believes are the best practices for survivors, advocates, journalists and news consumers when it comes to this topic.

To Newman, the “trick of journalism” is figuring out how to get the public to engage and listen to things they do not want to hear about.

“One of the problems that happens when we’re trying to talk about sexual assault is that we have a tendency – we either go towards it or away from it,” Newman said.

The event was sponsored by The Crisis Center Inc., the K-State Center for Advocacy Response and Education, K-State Conflict Analysis and Trauma Studies, the K-State Conflict Resolution program and the K-State Women’s Studies Department.

In her speech, Newman spoke of journalistic practices and whether or not survivors of sexual assault should be named in stories.

Angela Hubler, interim director of women’s studies, said she was upset with the fact that the Manhattan Mercury published the name of a rape survivor after a court case, which led her to bring Newman to Manhattan.

“I think that (journalists) need to understand that it does not just impact the individual woman that was raped, but that it also discourages other rape survivors from pressing charges,” Hubler said after the speech. “And journalists need to be responsible to the community and help make us more safe, and if people can’t have crimes prosecuted, we are not safe … So if I sound angry, it’s because I am.”

When it comes to naming survivors in news stories, and whether including names is relevant, Newman listed several arguments both for and against the issue.

Reasons Newman gave for naming victims include the reduction of stigma around sexual assault; the opinion that rape should not be treated differently than other violent crime; it is unfair to protect the privacy of rape victims, but not other victims; it is public information; and that it is unfair to name the perpetrator but not the victim.

Arguments against naming victims, however, include that this type of crime is different from other violent crimes; it could further traumatize victims; naming victims has no news value; the public needs to know that it happened, but not who it happened to; it can put the victim in danger and make them feel threatened; and it could lead to even more under-reporting on a subject that is already under-reported.

“It has a different context … that makes us nervous as a society,” Newman said.

Newman advised journalists to use correct and accurate language and terminology, as well as respect potential interviewees’ right to say no.

Newman also stressed the importance of accuracy.

“In my view, accuracy is the most important thing,” Newman said. “I want stories told about horrible things that happen … We need more stories told in different kinds of ways representing different kinds of people.”

For survivors, Newman said it is good to check the reporter’s history and ask for clear guidelines and rules. For journalists, “The best way to help a disempowered person be accurate is to give them choices.”

In addition, Newman discussed advice for advocates of sexual assault and for consumers of news media.

“I also think as consumers of news media, we have a responsibility,” Newman said. “We have a responsibility to compliment people who do a good job and to talk when we see a problem. We have a responsibility to actually consume the news and think about those things.”

Allison Sowle, senior in family studies and human services, pre-law and women’s studies, said she works at the Crisis Center in Manhattan and that a lot of the hotline calls the center receives are from K-State students who have been sexually assaulted.

“A lot of the calls that we get in from college students,” Sowle said. “They have a giant fear of coming forward because of being exposed and of the repercussions from other fellow students.”

Jennie Smithies, senior in apparel and textile design and minor in women’s studies, also attended the speech and said she feels more people should learn about this topic.

“I feel like it would be informative for everyone, not necessarily just people in women’s studies and journalists,” Smithies said.

Newman will be presenting more on the topic today at 1:30 p.m. in the Hemisphere Room of Hale Library with a focus on news trends in trauma studies.

Hello! I'm Morgan Bell, a senior at K-State majoring in journalism. I'm currently a copy editor and writer for The Collegian.