Reporting Sexual Assault in a Way That Honors and Protects Survivors

Marianne Combs; courtesy photo

As a reporter for Minnesota Public Radio News, I learned a great deal about sexual harassment and assault in the Twin Cities performing arts scene. Amid the high-profile #metoo movement, survivors of abuse became bolder about sharing their stories, whether allegations of rape and harassment at the Minnesota Renaissance Festival or decades-old child abuse at the Children’s Theatre Company.

I also witnessed firsthand how our reporting can undermine and further traumatize victims of sexual assault. 

Journalists by nature are skeptical and prone to mistrust. And survivors of abuse are all too familiar with skepticism and outright disbelief. The first instinct of a survivor is not to share their story but to try and forget it, or to second-guess their feelings and memories. Survivors are their own worst critics. It can take years for them to finally come to terms with what happened. At that point, physical evidence is long gone. And how can one “prove” psychological trauma? For that reason alone, many survivors never go to the press to share their stories. 

News outlets are reluctant to publish accusations from anonymous sources, but the last thing a survivor of assault wants is to be forever linked to their abuser on the internet. Even if multiple survivors come forward, with allegations against the same abuser, some of them will have to be named for the story to be published. They are put in the terrible position of having to submit to further exposure, shame, and trauma in order to protect others from being victimized. 

News outlets are driven in part by bottom lines. They want stories that readers will share widely; to get them, they sometimes sink to base methods, dwelling on the most sordid or violent details of a survivor’s abuse. Once again, the survivor becomes a victim, exposed to the gaze of prurient readers. 

And then there is implicit bias. Despite the #metoo movement, reporters and editors are still influenced by our patriarchal culture. I have witnessed editors side with an abuser and vilify survivors, having had no firsthand experience or contact with either party. 

To do justice to survivors, we need to change how we approach their stories so that they are not victimized again. First and foremost, we need to start from a place of trust. This may seem counterintuitive to basic journalism, but in my experience it leads to better, more comprehensive reporting. I never reported anything I could not prove or verify with a third party, and everything was given a rigorous edit. My trust put my sources at ease, and as a result, they were more forthcoming. If I had a question, I phrased it “How can you help me prove this to my editor?” rather than “Are you sure this is true?”

Another badly needed reform is to protect survivors’ identities whenever possible. If multiple women come forward independently of each other with similar allegations against the same person, it should not be necessary to name them in print, especially if the journalist has done their due diligence.

It is the role of the newsroom to hold people who have power accountable on behalf of those who have none. By naming a source, newsrooms shift the legal liability onto the survivor, while excusing themselves of responsibility. That’s lazy journalism, and it puts the interests of the newsroom ahead of the interests of the survivors.

Marianne Combs (she/her) has reported on Minnesota arts and culture for the last 20 years. In 2020, Marianne resigned from Minnesota Public Radio in protest over how a story about sexual abuse was being handled. She is now pursuing opportunities to teach journalistic ethics and trauma-informed reporting, while continuing to advocate for greater racial diversity in public media.