On rape and journalistic description

Journalists have the role of agenda-setters in our information economy. When we chase down a story, we make a decision about what is important to report about. Additionally, the words we choose speak volumes about our “objective” relationship to the topic. Helen Benedict‘s article, “The Language of Rape” challenges the words that are used to talk about rape and survivors of sexual assault. (Full disclosure: I come from a sexual assault education and prevention background. I am a member of the Sexual Wellness Advocacy Team, which works to prevent sexual assault, dating violence, and stalking within the university community. As such, I tend toward the language of activism.)

Benedict’s confrontation of the victim-blaming language used in media coverage of these events brings some important questions to the forefront: Can a journalist truly be objective? How do we judge whether our language creates unfair bias?

Although journalists are lauded as important sources of objective observation within our democracy, it is clear that no individual operates at this idealistic level. For example, the journalists who cover sexual assault have been socialized in a climate the perpetuates victim-blaming and questions the validity of rape. To overcome these obstacles, it is important to recognize that language that seems normal is actually prejudicial. Benedict explains:

“These words, never used for men, either infantilize women (the woman is bright, the man intelligent; the woman is bubbly, the man energetic; the woman is hysterical, the man terrified; the woman is a girl, the man is a man), or, in the context of a sex crime, make them sound like sexual temptresses (a male crime victim is never described as attractive, pretty, or the suggestive equivalent).”

She provides a helpful test for those writing about this topic: “Would I use this word for a man? What does this word imply in context?” This suggestion is an important one for writing about all kinds of people. When describing people, it is important to use adjectives sparsely and only within the context of relevant description.

Does a musician’s race or religion specifically influence his or her music? If not, it’s not worth mentioning. Using extraneous description can often add another set of meanings that twist the credibility of the individual because of readers’ assumptions.

As journalists, it is important to recognize the power we have to change the vocabulary that is used to talk about people and issues. By framing sexual assault in a way that legitimizes the victimization of women, we move toward legitimizing this victimization in the social consciousness of Americans.

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2 Responses to On rape and journalistic description

  1. McKenna says:

    I can’t agree more with how easily using different adjectives can change the meanings of a sentence. For me, “Hysterical” implies that a person can’t make decisions because of a situation, whereas “terrified” means that someone is intensely scared, but their decision making abilities are not compromised. I agree that you wouldn’t see “The hysterical man” in a newspaper as often when used with a woman. We definitely need to be careful because we probably use adjectives like these without second thought.

  2. Jennifer,

    These are the kinds of ideas that inspire me! Last term I took a journalism course, “Women, Minorities, and the Media” and we addressed issues such as this. Isn’t it interesting that even seemingly day-to-day language can undermine a group of people? Not to go on a long diatribe, but it’s interesting that we are living in a (white-dominated) patriarchy and we have to write using the language of the patriarch. Maybe we can talk more about this later, but I enjoyed your post.

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