What were you wearing?
It’s a question that survivors of sexual assault loathe to hear, the subtext being, “What were you wearing when you asked for it?” Which is, of course, loaded with accusations that victims have some culpability in their attacks. Survivors endure unjust scrutiny of their actions not only by peers, but law enforcement, lawyers and school officials.
Recently, after an exchange with a follower who argued that woman entice the men who assault them, Twitter user @Steenfox asked those among her 17,000 followers who had been assaulted, to share what they were wearing at the time of their assault. Hundreds of people from around the world responded. @Steenfox retweeted responses with permission and shared direct messages anonymously. In doing so, she turned a disdainful question into an agent of catharsis for many survivors and supporters.
It’s a powerful story, and I wish coverage surrounding it had concentrated more on why it was important than how the story was subsequently reported.
I first read the Twitter exchange in real time on an uncomfortable Penn Station bench, doing a piss poor job of trying not to cry in public. In an uncharacteristic act of bravery, I typed a reply to @Steenfox. I stared at my phone for a moment and then deleted the tweet. As much as I wanted to be included in the spontaneous creation of a digital safe space, it concerned me where my tweet might end up. I didn’t want my tweet posted out of context later or used in an attempt to invalidate my beliefs or opinions. I didn’t want my pain to be pity porn or click bait. I didn’t want to be on the front page of BuzzFeed. Fear had silenced me, again.
My fears were not unfounded -- sites collected survivor tweets. While some published anonymous samplings of the tweets, other sites published them with survivors’ pictures and screen names. In the haste to report and react to the story quickly, inaccurate reporting misrepresented @Steenfox and her identity as a survivor was very nearly erased. Ignoring that @Steenfox is a survivor allows for the argument that she was acting as a citizen journalist and gathering information that other journalist are free to use. If we respect that she is a survivor, we have to view the exchange as something more intimate and include @Steenfox just as at-risk as the other people speaking about their rapes.
One of the most unfortunate things about the whole situation was that @Steenfox became a scapegoat for reporters who refused to take responsibility for their errors. Instead of saying that they failed in their reporting, it was suddenly the fault of @Steenfox for not mentioning in every tweet that she was a survivor. She was dismissed as ignorant for questioning why journalists can re-post tweets from the conversation, and was of course labeled irrationally “angry,” which runs on the theme that black women are not using twitter for activism but for toxic bullying.
As a fellow journalist, I feel obligated, to a point, to defend the journalists who reported this story. But it’s hard for me to blindly defend knee-jerk reaction pieces that are published with an almost hubristic refusal to admit wrongdoing. This is what is rotting modern journalism from within. Those of us who are journalists have to resist assuming our subjects are ignorant of our process. We also have to actually listen to and address their grievances.
It’s my belief that a journalist’s first duty is to the readers. We are in service to the public that we inform. We also have an ethical obligation to minimize harm in our pursuit of news. For example, in the mêlée of posts and think pieces around its coverage of @Steenfox’s exchange, journalists and para-journalists missed the point of the backlash. It wasn’t a question of can journalists do it, but can journalists do it better.
Despite what some online media outlets would have you believe, this shouldn’t have been a debate about the public nature of tweets. This should have been about reporting on sexual assault while journalism adapts to a new medium. Never have there been platforms like social media, and never has there been the need for those who gather news through these means to examine their actions through this particular lens.
Of course Twitter is public, but in the digital age all public spaces are not equal. It does us no good to pretend that a tweet on the timeline of a user with 21 followers is the same as a tweet posted on the landing page of a news site with a social reach of millions.
The only way those of us who are journalists can stay relevant in a society where technology is constantly changing how readers process, gather and react to information, is to grow with it. Part of that growth has to include figuring out how to cover potentially loaded, dangerous and/or controversial subjects that will inevitably stir fallout, and making ethical choices.