CLEVELAND, Ohio – Last week, cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer enacted a policy change that filled me with pride to be a member of a news organization that shows empathy, treats others with dignity in the pursuit of journalism and, as a result, evolves.
From now on, our coverage of sexual assault cases will omit the detail if a victim is intoxicated.
The new policy was inspired by an email our editor, Chris Quinn, received from a rape survivor, who took issue with the way we had portrayed her case in a recent story. Our coverage included the detail from court and police records that she was “highly intoxicated” when her attacker kidnapped her from downtown Cleveland, as she waited for an Uber, and raped her at an East Cleveland motel. The same man is accused of raping another woman, who we also described as “intoxicated.”
In her email, the 22-year-old survivor rightly argued that highlighting the fact that she had been drinking that night shifts the blame away from the rapist and re-traumatizes the victims. Her powerful testimonial and advocacy eventually led to our policy change. But first, Quinn gathered feedback on the issue from our extensive reader network.
The vast majority of the more than 200 respondents agreed with the survivor and encouraged cleveland.com to approach our coverage with greater sensitivity to the experience of victims. Others, however, argued for the inclusion of the victim’s intoxication in our reporting – often drawing upon logic rooted in rape culture, masquerading as concern for the public.
The argument that all facts in a police report are worthy of our coverage is anemic, at best. Police reports are full of details that are either irrelevant or only serve to question the credibility of the victim and would do nothing to elevate a news story or serve its audience.
My former colleague, Rachel Dissell, and I found many examples of this during a multi-year project examining the way Cleveland police handled sexual assault investigations. In one case that has always stuck with me, an officer noted that while interviewing the victim of a gang rape, “she began to cry w/no tears.”
The fact that an officer used that detail to memorialize his incredulity in a police report does not mean it deserves a place in a news story.
Some readers emailed Quinn to argue that noting a victim’s intoxication is a public service that helps keep women safe. Many have shared with us their view that women should realize that drinking too much in public leaves them vulnerable to rapists who target incapacitated victims. Some have even said it this bluntly: There are consequences to drinking, and rape is one of them. We, the media, should see it as our duty to carry that message to the public, they told us.
Victim-blaming is the underpinning of America’s rape culture, in which sexual violence against women is so normalized that it can override our right to feel safe in the world and to seek justice if we’re violated. One out of every six American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. Three out of four of those cases go unreported. Our rape culture is responsible for both of those statistics.
When we focus on the behavior and lifestyle choices of the victim, such as in the case at hand, it sends the message that she bears the responsibility for what happened to her. It harkens to what, by now, should be an antiquated notion that a woman who wears a tight dress, for example, is “asking for it.” In fact, a handful of readers used similar expressions in offering their feedback on the issue of intoxication. And these attitudes are endemic. By the time a girl becomes a woman in America, she already has been tacitly trained to avoid victimization by auditing her own conduct. Even the most empowered among us is programmed to default to self-blame if she is raped.
I know this because – well, in a phrase — ‘me too.’
I am also a sexual assault survivor. It happened in 2001, during the spring of my junior year in college. A fellow student, who I had considered a good friend, until then, followed me home from a party and pushed his way into my dorm room.
Unlike the survivors of the cases we write about, I didn’t have to deal with how the media handled the description of the crime against me. In part, that’s because I didn’t report it — so powerful was the rape culture that shamed me into believing it was my fault for going to the party, for drinking, for leaving the door unlocked, for being friends with him to begin with.
Until this moment, few people knew what had happened to me. To be honest, despite 20 years of reflection and the Me Too movement at my back, that sickening sense of culpability nearly stopped me from telling my story here – even as I am in control of its telling. So, the thought of the young victim in the case in question, reading our news coverage and feeling re-traumatized and unduly flagellated by our description of her as “highly intoxicated,” is almost too much for me to bear.
That empathy is at the heart of cleveland.com’s decision to update our policy and stop including details about a victim’s intoxication in our coverage of these cases. In making that change we’re owning our role in eradicating the rape culture that feeds on language like that. As Ohio’s largest news-gathering agency, we control a powerful platform and always strive to use it for good.
I’m grateful to the courageous survivor who helped us maintain our fidelity to that mission, nudged us along in our evolution and reminded us just how much words matter.
If you are a sexual assault survivor and need support, you can call or text the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center’s Crisis & Support Hotline at 216-619-6192 or 440-423-2020.