By Katie Feifer
The Bangor Daily News in Maine published an op-ed about sexual assault every single day during April, Sexual Assault Awareness Month. You can read the op-eds (and share them) here. The result was a giant step forward in raising awareness and educating about the realities of sexual assault and domestic violence. Additionally, members of the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault trained staff reporters in how to report on sexual and domestic violence in a more enlightened manner.
One of the prime movers behind this effort was Cara Courchesne, a member of CounterQuo. We asked Cara to share the story of how this month of positive media attention and media training came to be, because it is surely a model that others of us can emulate. Cara writes:
"As advocates, it is difficult to read news stories that don’t talk about sexual violence the way we’d like. It’s easy to get angry, to fire off an email listing all of the article’s issues, and write off the media as ignorant and continuing to perpetuate the cultural supports of sexual violence.
In order to change this dynamic, the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault(MECASA) and the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence (MCEDV) are partnering with the Bangor Daily News (BDN), a statewide news organization with the largest audience in Maine. The project is designed to increase the BDN’s attention to domestic and sexual violence, and to increase the skills of reporters and editors with regard to reporting on these issues.
The crux of our success came from building relationships with BDN staff. MECASA’s work with the BDN began last summer, when a local service provider and I met with their Editorial Page Editor, Erin Rhoda. We asked to meet with Erin because of the BDN’s reporting on a local child sexual abuse issue, none of which included resources for how survivors could contact their local sexual assault support center. We met, talked about how the BDN could have better reported on the issue, and promised to be in touch.
Over the next few months, other BDN reporters reached out, and our reputation as subject matter experts grew. Ultimately, the paper proposed a new project about domestic and sexual violence. With Margo Batsie from MCEDV, we responded with a list of ways the BDN could proactively address these issues. Because we had already started relationship building, we felt like we were in a good place to make a specific ask. These specifics included more attention to DV/SV during awareness months and a training for reporters and editors to better report on sexual and domestic violence.
We got what we asked for. Erin requested four op-eds from community members for Sexual Assault Awareness Month. After Erin received those four op-eds, she wanted more – as in one for each day of the month of April. After picking myself up off the floor from (excited!) shock, MECASA staff considered the range of issues we could address, from prevention to intervention, and asked community leaders and stakeholders to discuss the issues most closely related to their area of expertise.
At the end of April, Margo and I trained all reporters and editors at the BDN over two days. The training was mandatory for staff; the BDN’s commitment to changing the way the paper reported on domestic and sexual violence was clear. The trainings were full of thoughtful conversation, great questions, and of course, pushback. However, even the pushback was a learning opportunity for us, and helped us to consider how we can talk more effectively to members of the media.
The only way we’re going to change the media is to both write for and utilize various media platforms and successfully engage with members of existing, more traditional media. As the advocacy community seeks to increase this work, I wanted to share some of the lessons I learned this spring.
- Meet members of the media where they are. Members of the media don’t think about how to talk about domestic and sexual violence all day – they just do it (and sometimes, it’s not done in a way we’d like to see). The media cover a huge range of issues and most reporters don’t realize that when they call a reported sexual assault “alleged intercourse,” they’re helping perpetuate cultural stigmas we’re actively working against (or making the understatement of the week). Honestly, they’re just trying to make sure Grandma doesn’t choke on her cornflakes while she’s reading the morning news. Supporting them in their effort to be more neutral about their reporting starts with realizing they didn’t write the story with malicious intent. Like everyone else, they are susceptible to all of the cultural issues at play when we talk about sexual violence.
- Think about where they’re coming from. Given our 24 hour news cycle, reporters and editors are pushed to get as much information as they can and get the story out. Sometimes, this results in less attention to language than we’d all like. The media doesn’t report on domestic and sexual violence with a lens similar to ours – their job isn’t to believe or not believe survivors, it’s to report on criminal justice stories. They have to be neutral; the key is to help them understand that you’re not asking them to become a victim advocate – you’re asking them to be more neutral. Helping them understand the difference is crucial.
- What’s in it for them? There are ways you can demonstrate to members of the media tangible outcomes for their efforts. Many reporters and editors are unsure of where to find a good subject matter expert, or what hotline to include. By providing this information for them at the outset, and by continuing to provide them information when they ask, you are demonstrating your utility to their news organization. Also, by pointing out more neutral language for them to use, chances are, you’re helping them solve language issues they struggle with fairly often.
- Realize you can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometimes, you just might find you get what you need! Members of the media come from an entirely different place than we do. You’re going to have different opinions about specific phrases and what is appropriate for a reporter to write about and what isn’t. Having thoughtful conversations may help sway a reporter, and it may help you understand what is happening with a specific story. You may not reach a common understanding, but you’re building the relationship needed to get there.
- Praise what they get right. Like most people, reporters and editors respond well to praise. It’s important for us to note what good reporting looks like so we can provide examples for other reporters and editors. When we see great work on sexual and domestic violence reporting, let’s say so!
It’s not easy to work with the media. It involves dedication to relationship building and work on dicey language issues. It’s time consuming and doesn’t always coincide with your free time (because we all have so much of that!). But if they’re going to get it right, we have to be willing to help them get there. Their job is to report on the news – our job is to help them do it better. Working with the media means that we work together to change culture and the way we talk about sexual and domestic violence – one story at a time."