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In Africa, reporters face ethical questions when reporting on rape

In light of this week's sentencing of a Congolese military officer for sexual violence, correspondent Jina Moore discusses the many gray areas of reporting on rape in Africa.

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She didn't say what happened in between when they took her clothes and when they struck her. I had to decide whether to ask. I had a hunch -- mass rape was a tactic of genocide – and a hunch is what leads a journalist to ask questions. Also, journalists have to be loyal to the story they are telling, and to tell all of it, even the uncomfortable parts. When we sit down to interview trauma survivors, we know this is going to make them uncomfortable. That's why we do our best to explain why we're asking and give them the freedom to choose to say no. We have to trust that we explain our mission and its risks – and at some point, we also have to trust their consent.

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But there are times when we also have to recognize that these stories belong first to someone else. I decided not to press. I was telling a story, yes, but it was her story, and this was one part of that story I felt I had no business asking for if she didn't want to give it to me. (There's a corollary to holding back, of course, which is that maybe someone needs help with the thing you don't ask... and so later I did ask her later, in a women-only room, if she has had access to the medical services and any medications she may need since the war. She said she had. The truth? I don't know, but I let it be. It was the truth she wanted me to have.)

And after all this morally fraught reporting comes the writing. I've come to understand, from talking to some reporters and editors and from analyzing others' work, that as a group, we journalists seem to think of writing as the easy part -- or at least the part that's not fraught. It's easy to forget that how we put that story in the world – what quotes we use, what details we choose, what medium we use, what we focus on and what we ignore in the arc of our story – is just as important as how we report it.

In fact, I think it's a big part of whether a piece of journalism can be considered ethical. And I think the fact that all kinds of readers from all kinds of backgrounds object when, say, the name of a nine-year-old Congolese is published in a national US newspaper suggests that readers also think how and what we write (or broadcast, or blog, or Tweet) is an important indicator of whether we are trustworthy, ethical journalists.

All of which is to say, here's "The Pornography Trap, or, How Not to Write About Rape (pdf)," my piece from the January/February issue of the Columbia Journalism Review. (It's still behind a paywall on their website, but I got permission to post the PDF.) It's a consideration of the ways in which writing –whether on the page, or for television or radio, or even on Twitter – telegraphs to readers the thing they most need to know when they're reading a trauma story: whether we reporters are trustworthy.

I'd love to hear what you think.

Jina Moore is a freelance journalist based in Kigali, Rwanda, who blogs here.

The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of Africa bloggers. Our guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. To contact us about a blogger, click here.

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