But first, a quick news update: A Congolese colonel is going to jail for his sex crimes. It's the first such conviction – and about time. Two thousand people attended the verdict and sentencing, and 49 women had braved testifying against him in court, according to the BBC. I applaud you all.
If you're a regular reader, you've probably noticed by now that I write a lot about rape, in particular how journalists cover it. This surprises the me-of-five-years-ago. Then, I was in grad school with brilliant, fiery feminists who would have had a lot to say about this question if we'd ever had a class on it. I had virtually nothing to say about "that woman's issue," then... and sometimes felt like less of a woman (and certainly less of a feminist, if I even felt like that confusing f-word at all) because of my empty brain.
But in the intervening years, I've covered countries where you can't get away from rape -- or at least from its legacy. I spend a lot of time in post-conflict Africa, and in very nearly every country I've reported in, there's a local variation on the "rape as a weapon of war" story. I've found myself puzzling through awkward systems of journalism logic. In Sierra Leone, for a story about a new precedent in international humanitarian law, I talked for hours with women who were gang-raped, or once-raped, or raped by the same man with different objects, and any other variation you can imagine. I'd been told this topic was sensitive, even urged by well-meaning NGO folks not to ask about it. But as soon as I had the introduction out of my mouth -- "I'm a journalist writing about forced marriage during the war" – they interrupted me to start telling their stories. I was young, confused, overwhelmed, but slowly, I realized these were women who hadn't been heard before.
Meanwhile, my story was narrow. At some point in each interview – sometimes five minutes in, sometimes twenty, depending on the person and all kinds of verbals and non-verbals – I had to ask questions that subtly tried to uncover whether their stories were the ones I needed for my story. Were these women who fit the Special Court's new legalism "forced wives?" The precedent-setting case was all about how a forced marriage is a distinct crime, different from rape or sexual slavery, already defined (and sadly oft-used) in international law. I found myself thinking like a math teacher: All forced wives are raped, but not all rape victims are forced wives. It was an odd kind of consistency to have to maintain between the memories women wanted to share with me and the lens of the story. How do you tell a woman, "What you went through was horrible... but a different kind of horrible than I'm writing about?" (For the record, you don't. I think you just listen, as long as you can, and thank them.)
Later, in Rwanda, I interviewed a genocide survivor who told me about the weeks she spent hiding from the interahamwe, gangs of young genocidaires who did the brunt of the killing. She told me about how men beat her and those around her, killed her family, tore her clothes off and then cracked her own skull with a weapon, leaving her to die.
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.
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.