How embarrassing for professional journalists

Oh COME ON, journalists. How can you still be getting this wrong?

This time it’s someone at AAP for writing it, and someone at smh.com.au for running it: Teenage girl sexually assaulted in Sydney toilet block:

A teenage girl has been forced off a Sydney train and then sexually assaulted in a toilet block at the station, police say.

Despite what journalists write, assaults do not just loiter in dark places, waiting to happen at someone like some sort of Vashta Nerada. Assault is a crime committed by a person, so why is it reported differently? It’s the only crime they report this way.

Unless the story was written by a journo who knows what they’re doing, you can bet that the man who committed the crime isn’t mentioned in the first sentence. When I was a journo, it was drummed into us that most people only read the first sentence of a story – two sentences if it’s interesting – so you have to get the important stuff in there quick smart. Quite often, the man who committed the crime isn’t mentioned until the third or fourth sentence. I wonder, is it deliberate, or just incompetence?

I know, I know, it seems like such a minor point. But it’s not. It frames the way people think about male violence against women, and the result is that when we talk about it, we use sentences like “a woman was assaulted on the train”, “a young girl was assaulted in a park”, “a woman was assaulted while walking home”, “a woman was assaulted at a party”. The focus is on where the victim was and what she was doing, rather than on the person who committed the crime. When you talk about violence only in relation to women, then it’s seen as a problem for women to solve. Which is bullshit.

This is the story:

A teenage girl has been forced off a Sydney train and then sexually assaulted in a toilet block at the station, police say.

The 17-year-old girl was on a train when a man allegedly approached her and began talking to her around 12.30pm (AEDT) on Wednesday.

The 34-year-old man then forced her off the train and into a toilet block at Strathfield station in Sydney’s inner west, where he sexually assaulted her, police allege.

He then fled the scene and emergency services were called.

A short time later, police said they found the man and arrested him.

He was charged with sexual assault and will appear at Burwood Local Court on Thursday.

Oh, so the story is actually that a man has been arrested for assaulting someone. Here AAP and SMH, let me write it for you, using your language:

Man arrested for assaulting teen

A man has been charged with sexual assault after attacking a teenage girl.

The 34-year-old man allegedly approached the 17-year-old girl on a train and began talking to her around 12.30pm (AEDT) on Wednesday.

He then forced her off the train and into a toilet block at Strathfield station in Sydney’s inner west, where he sexually assaulted her, police allege.

He then fled the scene and emergency services were called.

A short time later, police said they found the man and arrested him.

He will appear at Burwood Local Court on Thursday.

There, that wasn’t so hard, was it?

Update 24 Jan: This morning, The Daily Telegraph has two stories about the alleged rape (also run on News.com.au). In one, reporter Jim O’Rourke caught the train and asked women if they were going to be more careful from now on – proving that he has absolutely no idea about the issue he is reporting on. If all it took was women to “be careful”, then there wouldn’t be any rape or sexual assault. In the second story, O’Rourke includes two gratuitous photos of the toilet. That’s gross and unnecessary.

21 responses to “How embarrassing for professional journalists

  1. Note how it’s one of those articles without a comments section, so we can’t even publicly point out the bad editing.

    • Yeah, but that’s for legal reasons. Luckily we have blogs and social media to let them know. Not that it seems to make a lot of difference. Emailing them also achieves nothing. So I keep writing these posts (two for two this year), hoping that the more people think about this stuff, the more they’ll point it out to the journos, and eventually they’ll pay attention, right? Right?

      Staticsan, welcome to the News with Nipples.

  2. Reblogged this on From A Whisper To A Roar and commented:
    How many fucking times do we have to say this? Thank you, newswithnipples

  3. So Ahh stupid question alert

    What does sexual assault mean? Is that rape? and if it is what don’t they write rape? For some reason to mean is doesn’t seem as serious as rape

  4. He asked women if they were going to be more careful?
    What? Catching the train is risk-taking behaviour now?
    This shits me to death.

  5. l agree with your re-write, it is how it `should` be said.
    Disassociating the criminal from the crime is a disgrace, for the victim, and for the reader. This continual poor reporting style needs to be rectified.

    1-Does this continual poor style indicate `system-failure`.?
    (Where is the editor)

    2-ls this happening because so-called `journos` are now spending too much time `writing-as-an-advertising-agent`.?
    (became entrenched in `advertising/spin` styles, and NOT the `reporting` style)

    Yes. O`Rourke is a tool.

    • I think the reporting just reflects the way people think about crimes like this. Journos are just like everyone else and they think about male violence against women in the same way, because they’ve grown up in the same culture. They buy into the bullshit that the way to stop these crimes is for women to be more careful, because they’ve probably never thought about it before. I’m sure that asking women if they were going to be more careful on the train seemed like a completely natural follow-up story to the journo, and his editor. Problem is, if they want to report accurately, then they need to look at the words they are using.

  6. ”””””””’asking women if they were going to be more careful on the train seemed like a completely natural follow-up story to the journo, and his editor.””””””’

    That actually sounds a bit like `victim-blaming` to me, it is interesting you refer to this as a `natural-follow-up` for both journo and editor. Wouldn`t a better follow-up be keeping on the tail of the criminal, if made bail, if so, next court date, via police. Maybe giving the victim an offer to tell her story, if her `welfare` permits.?

    • Yes, it is victim-blaming. My point was that journos have grown up in our culture that puts the focus on what the female victim was doing, and so they perpetuate that nonsense in their own reporting. That’s what I meant about it being a natural follow up story for them.

  7. l see it as more than `cultural`, but systematic.

    While Hunter was killing Cafferkey (Vic) and Bayley/Edwards was killing Meagher (Vic) and the NSW female armed guard was being beaten and having her cash-bag stolen, and was later persecuted for 14-months by NSW police for shooting her attacker,

    the Limited-News Liberal Party Misogyny Pamphlets were diminishing Joolya on a daily basis, dis-associating her and party from any and all achievements, and dis-associating Mr-Rabbit from his foot-in-mouth bloopers. Other individuals, Sattler and later dear old Piers on Insiders, ran the `is-Tim-gay` bullshit, which no other, (particularly-male), politicians had to put up with about their spouse/partner.

  8. Pingback: DUFC #69

  9. First up: Thank you. I wasn’t aware of this bias before your explanation. Now you’ve pointed it out, I’m stunned… stunned that I hadn’t picked up on this bias earlier, and stunned that it glides so casually through our most professional journalism outlets. Urgh.

    Trying to find some ‘respectable’ justification: maybe these stories are posited in observation of the victim to maximise sympathy, empathy and/or outrage. So maybe it’s not about consciously or unconsciously blaming the victim, but it’s about increasing the human interest element to encourage the reader to buck the ‘first sentence rule’…

    …Dunno, it’s just an unedited thought I had. A pretty nasty thought, mind you, especially when I followed it where it seemed to go: I doubt journos forget or ignore their professional standards or ethics casually, so why would a story be written and/or published this way? The ‘first sentence rule’ strikes me as a clue: if that’s the standard journalists are taught, then holding a reader’s attention beyond the first sentence or two means you must be hot-shit, erm, very good indeed. So: does reporting the victim’s sequence of events engage readers by appealing to their empathy, sympathy, and human interest? Do journos/outlets think this gives better ‘read-through rates’ (if that’s a thing)? Does this style of reporting succeed by breaking a ‘first sentence rule’? The ugliest thing about this idea is that a victim’s experience is reduced to blunt gossip for the purpose of maximising readership or read-through stats or whatever. The story is handled differently for media status props. And that’s the point where the victim is devalued. For professional and commercial gain.

    • Hi Lou, sadly, the human interest element doesn’t quite work in this case. If the aim was to elicit sympathy/empathy for the victim, then the focus would be on how they felt after the assault, rather than what they were doing before the assault. Detailing what the victim was doing has two effects: one, it sends the message that if you don’t do that thing you won’t be assaulted (which is selling women a lie about assault), and two, that perhaps she was doing something that caused it, like being outside, or drinking, or having fun. So, you’re right, it could be to buck the first sentence problem, but the effect is that we have a society that always asks what the victim was doing, instead of asking why the criminal did it. And their reporting comes from these attitudes because a lot of people don’t think about this stuff. Hell, it was a fucking lightbulb moment when I first read about it. Soon after, while I was still a journo, I covered one of those regular “hey young women, if you get drunk and someone rapes you, you need to take personal responsibility for your choices” stories. I framed the story as the police telling women they’re to blame if they’re raped, and they called me up to tear me a new one, yelling HOW DARE I WRITE THAT, that’s not what the police commissioner meant at all. Luckily, I’d discussed it with my editor beforehand, and she agreed with me, so I just passed the call over to her and she yelled right back. But that’s unusual.

      I’ve written lots of these posts over the years – unfortunately – and some journos have contacted me afterwards, saying they had no idea that they were reporting violence against women differently, and that they had no idea why they did it. That’s not surprising, because they’ve grown up in the same culture that the rest of us have grown up in. If journos started reporting this crime properly, then I really believe we’ll see a subtle shift in the way people think about it. Sadly, a few journos have said that I’m wrong, that of course they don’t remove the perpetrator from his crime. It’s almost funny how blind they are to their own words, and how little they think about the words they use. Journos cop a lot of criticism (some of it quite rightly), so I’m sure their first response is to deny and shut it out. Hopefully, after they’ve encountered these ideas a few times, they’ll start to think about it and have their own lightbulb moment.

      • That’s the problem with being an opinionated deep-web-denizen who has fallen out of cogitative practise: I have big thoughts and feelings that must be heard, but these days I’m not as learnĂ©d as I think I am, and not as good at “think fast!”, and definitely not so good at using my words no more.

        So… I think we broadly agree, probably: the article would get a big fat ‘F’ in _High School Journo Work Experience Standards 101_; the story, as written, donks because the public interest is mispresented – the offender is passed off as some immutable force of nature, like a grizzly bear or man-eating tiger, while the victim is scrutinised as the cautionary tale; the resulting bias contributes to an unjust environment where women and children are told to take responsibility in managing the natural threats men pose…

        Beyond that, the devil is in the detail. And these days the detail is ‘monetisation’. I still think ‘empathy’ is used deliberately, like iridescent shimmer on some fancy flyfishing lure: it looks like something you should know or care about (and it flies under the colours of a prestigious reporting agency), but it’s fake and put there deliberately to _hook_ you and pad out the monetisation stats. The input is a standard focused on money, the output (for the reader’s community, at least) is bullshit misdirection of blame away from the perpertrator.

        (I really am out of practice, so I hope that makes sense. If not, whoops, sorry, I’ll try better next time. And I don’t mean journos do this deliberately, just that it’s a style that is tacitly encouraged because it isn’t binned by subs, editors or agencies).

        • Lou, I think you used your words just fine. I loved the ‘thinking through it’ process of your comment.

          Most news articles would fail student journalism, mainly because they have only one voice and nothing is verified.

          And you’re absolutely right about the monetisation. Before online news, editors didn’t know exactly how many people were reading the articles. Now they do, and there’s loads of research showing that online editors are being “digital windsocks”, making news decisions based on the whims of the audience, rather than on anything deeper like news values and the media’s role in a representative democracy.

  10. Pingback: DUFC #69 | PNCAU

  11. I can’t believe I never noticed this practice before and now that I have I have the shits. It’s as though the event so significant as to deserve reporting is someone alighting a train. The second story viv ‘will you be more careful from now on’ is the usual victim blaming of the type I used to be prone to.
    I am an old contributor who gave you and your regular readers justifiable anger at my oblivious knuckle dragging views, however several events such as divorce and a brush with death have led me to re-evaluate who I am and what I stand for thus I have returned to ask questions and learn. I think it’s an important process for me if you would permit it.
    As an aside I was watching a documentary about serial killer Aileen Wuernos (one of the joys of shiftwork is being able to watch poorly produced crime docks on Foxtel during the day) and I was thinking that the US system is largely to blame for her killings. Given that prostitution is criminalised in large parts of the USA, instead of accepting that there is always going to be a sex industry and taking steps to stop men from committing violence against prostitutes they have created a situation whereby had Wuernos reported the violent sexual assaults committed against her SHE would have been in gaol instead of the men. Thoughts? Am I way off with this?

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