How much do we really want to hear about someone else getting sexually assaulted? Why do we want to hear it? Does it help us? Or has “coming forward” just become, in many cases, an automatic, lurid way to get attention while bumming a lot of other people out?

Back when I wrote for newspapers*, I was at the center of a newsroom fight about this topic. The alleged victim wasn’t famous like Lara Logan; she was a single young welfare mother. Here’s what happened: She came to a young female reporter (not me) offering to tell her story about being raped. She wanted her name used. Young female reporter jumped all over it.

Young female reporter was working the Saturday shift, when there was a skeleton crew of management and thus, less scrutiny over what went in the paper. In a day, she wrote a huge story containing every graphic detail that the alleged victim told her about how an older man had said he wanted to go into business with her; developed a relationship with her; eventually got her out into a car on a supposed business trip, took her out to the mountains and proceeded to bind her and rape her for a day. Oh, and he still owed her money he’d promised to pay her for “work.” The cops arranged for her to call him on a pretext of getting money he supposedly owed her, and got him to come to her house, where they were waiting to arrest him.

How do you feel so far reading this? Good? No? Lucky you, you only have to read a few sentences about it. The newspaper’s Sunday readers were treated to a huge front-page story, complete with a photo of the alleged victim looking sad, and a sidebar about the perils of acquaintance rape. Her allegations were described over 80 or 90 column inches, as compared to about 12 to 15 for a regular news story.

All the quotes and information came from the alleged victim, except for a brief quote from a police officer calling her “brave.” Oh, and the usual no-comment from the alleged perp and/or his attorney, if he had one by then, I can’t remember. Oh, and the police report. Because that’s all there was, was a police report and an arrest. No hearing, no trial, we were nowhere close to that yet. No physical evidence, no other witnesses. Just a woman claiming that her business partner raped her, then she went home, called the police, had him arrested, and had them write down her account. That’s it.

Was it enough to protect the paper from a lawsuit? Yes. Was that enough to merit an 80-inch front-page Sunday spread glorifying her as the poster girl for date rape? I didn’t think so. I voiced my objections strongly, which led to conflicts.

The staff was divided into three camps: 1) Those who thought the alleged victim was “brave for coming forward” (mostly women).

2) Those who thought we’d been sickeningly irresponsible to print a detailed account of some publicity-seeking, random woman’s allegations about some random man based on nothing more than a police report (mostly women).

3) People who just wanted to stay the hell out of it (mostly men).

It’s one thing to seek justice for a sexual assault. It’s another thing to seek publicity. At least that was the Camp 2 view. Camp 1 seemed to think that anyone who’s been raped is doing society a heroic deed by talking about it to as many people as possible, and everyone is obligated to listen and applaud. Also, Camp 1 thought, incorrectly, that there’s no way police would arrest a man based only on a woman’s allegation, with no physical evidence. (Whether the district attorney actually prosecutes the case may be a different matter, but we weren’t there yet.) I couldn’t tell how much the two beliefs were intertwined, because members of Camp 1 didn’t talk to Camp 2 for a few days, then we just kind of tried to avoid mentioning it again.

*Print reporters and TV reporters are natural enemies. That’s because most TV reporters are obnoxious self-promoting bimbos, like Lara Logan.

Category: Newsroom

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2 Responses to “Coming forward:” How newsworthy is sexual assault, really?

  1. Mike Hunt says:

    Well, was the story legit, or was it bogus? Not in a newsworthy sense, but in a criminal one.

  2. Sheila Tone says:

    The weird thing was, I never got to find out. So, I suspect bogus. There had been no follow-up stories when I left that paper a few months later. You’d think by then there’d have been either a preliminary hearing, or a plea deal. Both public record, both easily gotten by following up with the district attorney, if they’d chosen to file it instead of reject it.

    I checked the paper’s online archives some years later, and the original story seemed to have disappeared. I was 98 percent certain I remembered the young woman’s name, and there weren’t that many rape stories. I asked a friend still working there, and he couldn’t find anything either. He claimed not to remember the whole affair. Suspicious, since his then-fiancee had been the leader of Camp 1.

    It’s possible the reporter just never bothered to follow up on the story. Lame, but possible. However, considering that the alleged victim had come to the paper in the first place, I would expect she’d have let the reporter know about the progress of the case — unless it got dropped. Or, the cops would have told the reporter, being proud of their role in the investigation.

    Therefore, I suspect it was a DA reject, and both parties were too embarrassed to seek out any publicity over it. Who knows why the paper never followed up — maybe a deliberate decision, maybe because the reporter expected someone to call her, and just forgot about it or left the paper.

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