Reporting on sexual assault

Media backgrounder – February 2012

Placing the story in context

It is important to ensure that the manner in which sexual assault is portrayed reflects a broad range of experiences, and not just atypical sexual assaults such as stranger rapes or cases that involve extreme violence.

Police and the courts are key sources of information on many news stories on sexual assault. However, these sources do not necessarily provide a full or contextual account of sexual assault.

The information used by police, or in a court case, serves a very specific purpose:

  • to determine if a criminal offence has occurred;
  • to gather evidence that is admissible in a court of law; and
  • to gather sufficient evidence to meet the burden of proof.

Cases taken to court must be proved beyond reasonable doubt. Withdrawing a case, or not proceeding, does not equal innocence. It just means prosecutors did not have enough evidence to meet the very high threshold.

Only a small number of sexual assaults are reported to police or proceed to court, so information from these sources does not necessarily reflect what happens in most sexual assaults.

Recommendation

Avoid using the police or court data as the only source of information on sexual assault.

Recommendation

Ensure that reporting of sexual assault is reflective of, and proportionate to, a range of victim/survivors' experiences.

Avoid over-emphasizing stranger-rape and sexual assault where there is also considerable physical violence and consider running stories of, for example, intimate partner sexual violence instead.

Example

If the assault has occurred within the context of ongoing intimate-partner sexual violence, and/or domestic violence, report the broader context of the perpetrator's violent behaviour, as opposed to a one-off "out of character" attack.

Recommendation

Seek comment from individuals working within the sexual assault field in order to provide an informed, evidence-based opinion.

This may assist in reducing misconceptions of sexual assault, or at least provide a voice to counteract any unintended messages about sexual assault.

Example

This extract from a Ninemsn article on the Matthew Johns/NRL sexual assault incident provides a clear example of the problem of leaving inaccurate comments or quotes unchallenged:

She is saying she is still traumatized etcetera, well she wasn't for five days, or four days at least, after that affair. I can't work out what's happened: does it take five days for it to sink in? (quote from former work colleague of victim/survivor in Sex scandal woman "bragged about it", retrieved from <http://news.ninemsn.com.au/national/813924/sex-scandal-woman-bragging-about-it> ninemsn, 15/05/09)

This uncontested opinion:

  • Discredits the victim/survivors account.
  • Reproduces the misconception that victim/survivors will immediately recognise their experience as a crime.
  • Reproduces the misconception that victim/survivors must always respond in an emotional or traumatised way.
  • Seeking comment from experts (such as a sexual assault counsellor or academic) may help to avoid reproducing these misconceptions by counteracting them with fact.
  • A sexual assault expert may have challenged the colleagues comments by explaining that it is common for victim/survivors to reframe their experience as "consensual" or to take some time to identify their experience as sexual assault. An immediate impact of trauma can be denial.