The Big Problem With How We Report on Sexual Assault Online

News organizations' willingness to republish viral images of sexual assault can have a negative impact on victims.

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In 1964, 28-year-old Kitty Genovese was raped and stabbed to death in her home in Kew Gardens, New York while 38 neighbors reportedly ignored the sounds of her screams. Though details of the infamous event have long been questioned, it still sparked a nationwide debate over what is now known as “the bystander effect,” a psychological term used for when spectators tend towards inaction rather than intervention when others are around. This phenomenon, which was once interpreted as urban apathy, has morphed into a more active form of voyeurism with the advent of the Internet: instead of watching crimes unfold from the sidelines, people prefer to make use of the sharing devices in their pockets, opting for social media over mediation.

An example of this can be found as recently as last Sunday, when footage of a man having sex with an unconscious woman lying facedown in a Chicago park was posted on the six-second video sharing app Vine.

“Bruh she really just laying there lifeless,” someone tweeted along with an image taken from the video. The week before, people celebrating Ohio University’s homecoming weekend shared photos and videos online of a man publicly performing oral sex on an apparently drunk woman. The incident is now being investigated as a sexual assault. And of course there’s Steubenville, Ohio, where high school students infamously tweeted and Instagrammed images of an unconscious 16-year-old girl before and during her sexual assault. Two high school football players were found guilty of rape.

With the proliferation of these images, the Internet allows bystanders who record criminal acts to reach millions through social media.  In recent weeks, some members of the mainstream news media have joined the disturbing trend themselves.

On Oct. 16, BuzzFeed ran a story titled “Alleged Sexual Assault That Happened On A Sidewalk During Ohio University’s Homecoming Was Live-Tweeted” that showed the images of the alleged assault. Even though faces and genitalia were blurred out, the act, acknowledged to be potentially nonconsensual, is still largely visible.

Of course, BuzzFeed wasn’t alone. A day later, the Daily Mail ran the image, as did the New York Daily News the day after that — each publication cropping and blurring the photographs slightly differently, in an apparent attempt to justify their proliferation.

The decision to run these photos is in opposition to standards for reporting on sexual assault as practiced by media outlets for decades.

“The media has widely accepted it as a best practice for at least 30 years to not identify victims of crime by name, and those images are identifying in the same sense as the name is,” said Katherine Hull, a spokesperson for Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network.

A handful of states including Florida, South Carolina, and Georgia have passed laws that ban the media from reporting rape and sexual assault victims’ names.

Some news publications have even refused to print victims’ names even if they ask to be identified or write an editorial about their experiences, said Al Tompkins, a newsroom ethics expert at the Poynter Institute.

Days after news of the Ohio assault broke, media sources began publishing the name and images of the female student identified as the victim of the attack. The images and information largely came from postings at the website 4chan, an image sharing message board with a notorious reputation. Many 4chan users took up the cause of vindicating the alleged attacker, saying that the act looked consensual.

Even though the Daily Mail reported that the woman said she was falsely identified and had no involvement in the alleged assault, it still published images of her smiling face next to text about the “venomous abuse she has received online and how she was so frightened she became a prisoner in her own home.”

BuzzFeed even published pictures originally posted on 4chan of the woman in her sorority letters, a further means of identification.

Ryan Broderick, who wrote the stories for BuzzFeed, said in an email:

When reporting on stories that involve already viral content like photos and videos that are being shared online in large numbers we usually try to include them if possible. The media is already out there and it’s important to put that media in context. We, of course, censor graphic content and the faces of participants where it is necessary. In the case of the Ohio University alleged sexual assault, we followed the same guidelines we used for previous stories that sadly involved similar instances of graphic photos going viral.

The Daily Mail and New York Daily News did not return requests for comment.

“What is the journalistic purpose for doing this?” asked Poynter’s Tompkins.

Broderick pointed to a separate BuzzFeed story that featured images, which had gone viral, of a 17-year-old girl performing oral sex on multiple men at an Eminem concert. Included in the story was a tweet, “Instagram is deleting accounts from anyone who posted #slanegirl photos. Oddly they don’t like being a platform for child porn.” BuzzFeed put a black line over the girl’s face, but it continued to distribute an image that social media sites and original posters had chosen to remove.

“There would have to be an overwhelming journalistic reason to use such an image other than this is going to get great web traffic and people are going to want to see this,” Tompkins said. 

Some outlets have reported on the photographs of assaults which have spread on social media without publishing the images themselves. The Daily Dot did so when reporting on the Chicago rape that was posted on Vine without incorporating screengrabs of the actual assault in its article.

“If you spread the harassment victim’s personal information, you’re doing her harassers a favor,” said Cooper Fleishman, an editor at The Daily Dot who edited the site’s coverage of the Chicago rape Vine. “Generally, photos illustrate and help tell the story, but if you include an image of a woman being assaulted, you’re victimizing her all over again, and that has to outweigh whatever value a reader would get out of having it there—which is not much.”

Hull, the RAINN spokesperson, agrees. “Sexual assault is one of the most underreported crimes in the U.S., and victims of crimes may not come forward for fear of being blamed, so publicizing the name would only open the surviver up to that scrutiny,” she said.

The Huffington Post, which did not republish the images, reported that “Vance Blanc, a freshman at OU, saw his photo go viral this week after BuzzFeed posted an edited version of it Monday.”

Blanc told the Ohio University Post that he regretted tweeting images of the event.

“People were around taking videos, and I was like, ‘I want to get a picture of this.’ I was an idiot,” Blanc said. “I put the picture up. I have to own up to that. I put it up because it had shock factor. It was something I’d never seen before. It was never meant to embarrass or harm anyone.”

While Blanc deleted the images he posted, they live on in news publications. Online, commenters frequently start a conversation that blames the victim of alleged assault.

“Wow. I just saw the picture. She’s definitely enjoying it,” Katch22 posted on the NY Daily News, eliciting thumbs up signs of agreement.

“I think a lot of people leaf through most publications and see the images and read the captions, so from what extent they get the full story is unclear,” said Ohio University police chief Andrew Powers.

This seems especially true for sites like BuzzFeed, that rely heavily on graphical components scraped from the web.

“Images are just that, a snapshot in time,” Powers said. “And I think that sometimes they lack context and that can be a challenge in terms of how it can frame public opinion.”