When a sexual assault complainant asks to be publicly identified careful consideration is still required.
By Lisa Taylor
To say the Ghomeshi trial incited a conversation about sexual assault complainants’ treatment in the media would be an understatement. The case has ignited debate about the trial process, an individual’s decision to report an alleged assault to police and why a sexual assault victim would ever choose to report an assault, given the nature of the criminal trial process.
Of the three complainants in the Ghomeshi case, Lucy DeCoutere’s experience at trial was particularly compelling for two reasons. First, DeCoutere chose to be publicly identified rather than have her identity protected by a court-ordered ban; second, she was subjected to a grueling cross-examination on statements she had previously made in the media about the alleged assault.
Months before the Ghomeshi trial began, the CAJ’s ethics committee decided to look at the ethical issues that flow from a sexual assault complainant’s decision to speak to the media, and to be publicly identified in any resulting news reports. I, along with my fellow authors—Bert Bruser and Kathy English of the Toronto Star and Meredith Levine of Western University’s Faculty of Media and Information Studies—wanted to explore the considerations a responsible journalist might face when reporting about a publicly identified sexual assault complainant. We thought it particularly important to enumerate the steps a reporter should take to ensure they actually have informed consent from someone who says they want to be identified as a victim of sexual assault.
Doing so effectively requires the journalist to walk a careful line. On one hand, it is important to ensure a complainant understands all that can flow from deciding to be interviewed and identified—they no longer control their story, the social media response can be toxic and, even years later, a search engine will almost certainly connect their name with that story. At the same time, however, journalists should allow complainants to exercise their own agency—in short, a journalist should not perpetuate the paternalism so many sexual assault complainants encounter in their interactions with police and the courts.
In addition to exploring the question of informed consent, the discussion paper considers the need for journalists to seek to verify the stories of sexual assault complainants. This is, of course, a touchy issue—there are those who feel that testing the story is endemic of societal skepticism and disbelief of stories of sexual assault.
Finally, the paper considers a range of options that may reduce the risk of harassment, shaming and other unintended consequences for those choosing to go public, through the media, as sexual assault complainants.
At the time the committee began to interrogate this question, members had no idea the discussion paper’s release would coincide with a significant national conversation about whether sexual assault victims should report assaults, whether they should participate in prosecutions, and whether they should be interviewed and even identified in the media.
But the timing appears to be right; for that reason, the CAJ hopes the discussion paper will help to educate and, ultimately, inform an important debate.
Editor’s note: a revised version of this report was uploaded on March 6.