After Weinstein: How to continue reporting sexual abuse to fatigued audiences

REUTERS/Jane Rosenberg

It is not unusual for a news topic to become boring in the eyes of reporters or the public, nor is it unique to sexual abuse crimes.

Even murder became a dull topic for readers, according to a 1994 paper by Philip Schlesinger and Howard Tumber. And domestic abuse suffers the same paradox:  the more prevalent a crime is the less it will be reported (Meyers, 1997).

For years, NGOs and experts in the prevention of child molestation have called for more reporting to drive awareness. Awareness, they know, drives political action. And political action and awareness makes it safer for victims to come forward and report their abusers.

Yet I can’t help but feel that the media has created their own quota for how many cases we bring forward to the public. This way of handling information should be reconsidered.

As a reporter for Danish tabloid Ekstra Bladet it has been my job to cover cases of sexual violence. During my fellowship at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, I stopped to think about why we report sexual assault, how we do it, and whether we could do a better job of it.

Since revenue and engagement have become two of the most important metrics for journalists today, we can’t fully ignore the wishes of our readers. We can’t deny the news avoidance and fatigue that surrounds stories of sexual violence. Nor should we. But we can improve how we report on these cases, to make it possible to report more of them.

The answers I found were simple, but simplicity can be easy to forget on a deadline. 

The three key questions I believe we should ask ourselves before proceeding:

Why should we report this? If readers are tired of single-case stories of horrible abuse, remind them why these stories are important to tell. What are the statistics – what is the impact on society, and to them?

How can we report this? In some cases you have to tell the story through anonymous sources – think about how you can make the best impact and immediate connection. If you have an interview, audio of the survivor can be a great way to maintain their anonymity while still compelling the audience.

How can the reader help? Where a story is emotionally difficult to digest, give your readers a way to feel empowered: what can they do to identify and prevent sexual abuse? Failing that, can they donate somewhere? This makes the readers more invested in the stories.

For a more in-depth discussion of this topic, find Camilla Nielsen's full fellowship paper below.