Writing About Rape, From the Perspective of a Former Crime Reporter

The best I could hope for was to be as truthful and accurate as possible, in order to do justice by the victims.
Publish date:
September 30, 2013
rape, crime, crimes against women, Sex,

I covered some pretty sick stuff as a crime reporter. Murder. Meth lab explosions. A dismemberment so gruesome I cried with the victim’s mom in her kitchen. But what tore me up the most, what wracked my guts and caused me the most worry, was covering rape.

I was reminded of this upon reading s.e.’s story this week about the sexual assault of a teenager by a Los Angeles sheriff’s deputy. Ou gets a lot of stuff right, but a few things you can only learn inside a newsroom. I had the privilege of being that inside reporter for three years, so I can explain a little bit about how I covered rape in northern Michigan.

A few caveats, of course: I can only speak to my experience and the experiences of other crime writers I know. This stuff almost certainly varies from newsroom to newsroom. I don’t know that there is a “right” way to cover sex crimes, but there are plenty of wrong ways. I don’t think mine is one of them. With that out of the way:

Why I didn’t say “rape.”

Rape is not a legal term, at least in Michigan. All sexual assaults are classified under varying degrees of criminal sexual conduct, and I reported them as such. The distinction is important, because as a crime reporter, I wrote specifically about the legal case, from the police reports to sentencing hearings.

No one is charged with “rape” in Michigan. Instead, they’re convicted of first-degree criminal sexual conduct, which includes any sexual penetration with another person if the victim is younger than 13, or younger than 16 but also a relative or under the influence or guidance of the defendant, or there was coercion, or they used a weapon, or a number of other caveats. Second-degree criminal sexual conduct (CSC for short) can be defined as any sexual contact with another person, where another list of “and alsos” are applied. And so on.

That’s pretty complicated, even for a Cliff’s Notes version. And frankly, it’s all rape to me. But precision of language is important. Remember that the guy who the Internet dubbed the “rape cop”? He wasn’t convicted of rape in New York, because that state requires p-in-v penetration. That was some bullshit, because dude was very much guilty (and pleaded to two counts of sexual assault), yet it was reported as “sexual assault,” because that was the legal description of his crime.

You will never find the words “forcible rape” in my clips -- in part because that wouldn’t accurately reflect the crime as it was being adjudicated. I wanted to do right by my sources, but I also wanted to do right by the victims, so I tried to write about what happened as clinically as possible.

Why I didn’t say “rapist.” s.e. got this one half-right: As a crime reporter, I couldn’t actually call someone a rapist until they were convicted of rape.

“But Lindsey,” you say, “you just told us no one is convicted of rape in Michigan!” Bingo. “Sex offender” was the term used by the Michigan penal system, so that’s what I used -- but only AFTER a conviction. Until then, “alleged” isn’t a “weasel word,” it’s an accurate description of what’s happening in court.

Now, are there slimy editors who keep the words “sex offender” out in favor of “defendant who had sex with” their victim? Probably. I don’t deny that rape culture exists everywhere. When it comes to accurate court reporting, though, neither “rapist” nor “adult who had sex with a minor” worked at my paper, because neither is accurate legally. I might be lucky, in that I have always had amazing editors who worked hard to fight against sexism and rape culture, both in the newsroom and on the page. So we wrote ONLY what was reported in court.

That means that as much as I would have wanted to call the old man who assaulted his granddaughter (HIS GRANDDAUGHTER) a rapist, I couldn’t, as much as I couldn’t call him a heaping pile of festering human garbage. Both would have been true, obviously, but they wouldn’t have reflected what was said in court. To write otherwise, as a reporter, would be to open myself and the paper up to a libel suit.

Now, opinion writers -- columnists, editorialists, pundits like Nancy Grace, etc. -- can use that phrasing to their hearts’ content. Sites like xoJane and Jezebel can, too, because they’re not news organizations. They’re blogs, and writers and commenters alike can share their opinions, and that’s a really good thing. We need that. Just not in a straight news article.

Why I wrote about defendants’ lives.

I think a lot of people quibble with this. s.e. suggested that talking about the defendants’ backgrounds might lead “people decide that the accused couldn't possibly have committed the crimes under discussion. Because they ‘know’ the alleged rapist, and that's just not like him.”

I disagree. People need to know who this defendant is, because more likely than not, he is guilty, and there are other people in the community who are doing the same thing who will never be caught. So you need to know: that man accused of sexually assaulting a teenage girl? He was the middle school vice principal. He was the high school track coach. He walks among us, and shame on all of us for not realizing how he’s been hurting vulnerable people -- children -- in the community until now.

Have I said “the defendant had a relationship with the victim?” I have. That can sound really awful and like there was some onus on the victim, when of course there was not. But pointing out that the offender and the victim knew each other is important, too. Readers should know that rapists aren’t just scary strangers in dark alleys. I believe in the importance of dispelling that myth.

They are people we know. They are people we maybe even liked or respected.

There’s no truly good way to write about sexual assault. As a reporter, I wasn’t a commentator. The best I could hope for was to be as truthful and accurate as I could, in order to do justice by the victims. To treat their stories fairly, and carefully, and to accurately reflect the community.

There are othercool womencrime reporters who do the same, and you should read them -- thoughtfully, critically and with the knowledge of how their beats work. Because shining a light on the darkest stuff in our society is the only way to fight it.