What is the media’s duty of care toward victims of sexual assault who speak out and open themselves up to online abuse and bullying?
Any woman who opens up in the media about being a victim of sexual violence knows she may well be opening herself up to public humiliation and possible harassment online.
Given the reality of the ugly blaming and shaming that inevitably occurs on the Internet when women reveal incidents of sexual violence, what duty of care does the media have to try to protect those who come forward to share their stories in this brave new digital world we inhabit?
This issue provoked considerable discussion in our newsroom this week prior to the Star publishing its powerful investigation into an “epidemic” of sexual assault on Canadian university and college campuses. The series, by reporters Emily Mathieu and Jayme Poisson, revealed how these public institutions are failing women who say they were sexually assaulted during their time at school.
The Star does not want to fail these courageous young women who shared highly sensitive personal information about sexual assault, with one of them choosing to be fully identified. But, we well understand that publication of their stories, photos and videos could expose them to online bullying and cause further emotional pain.
The Star also faced legal and ethical concerns here with the possibility that the alleged rapists the Star has not identified for legal reasons could be outed online, or the women whom we have promised not to identify would be identified by commenters.
In light of all this, the Star took several steps aimed at minimizing potential harm to the women. First, the reporters made strong efforts to ascertain the women understood the risks of coming forward and of being identified. The reporters rightly sought to make sure their vulnerable sources had given “informed consent” to publication of their stories.