some guidelines for music/entertainment writers writing about sexual assault

As entertainment journalists, we often aren’t expected to hew to the same standards as journalists who regularly report hard news — after all, much of what we do is personal opining and constructing an argument. There is a difference between “critic” and “journalist.” Some of us are one or the other, and some of us are both.

However, the music industry — and the entertainment industry at large — has sexual assault and harassment written into its functioning. This is how we get such high-profile accused predation over time, how it gets excused, how it gets refracted: Kim Fowley, Bill Cosby, Heathcliff Berru, Dr. Luke, R. Kelly. These are men with power in the industry who, it is reported, used sexual assault and harassment to enforce their power and used their power to elude the consequences of their actions. It is a hellish ourobouros we inhabit.

This combination of factors leads to regular fuckups on the part of entertainment media, who often report allegations of sexual assault without due diligence and the particular care that these issues need (a small example is Stereogum’s reportage this morning of Kesha’s allegations against Dr. Luke being “drugging and seduction,” rather than drugging and assault as per her own words, which the author fixed after some dialogue on Twitter; a large example is the absolute disaster that was the Rolling Stone UVA story. In the sports world, we are seeing the fallout from SBNation’s irresponsible profile of Daniel Holtzclaw.) Due to my personal and work history around sexual assault survivors’ rights and my current work as a music journalist and editor, I often find myself in conversation about how to do better. With that in mind, some guidelines:

  1. Be careful with your language. If there is alleged violence, do not refer to it using the same terminology as consensual sex. This reinforces the pervasive social myth that sexual violence is “sex gone wrong” rather than specific and contextualized violence.
  2. Do not put words in the accuser’s mouth. Let them tell their story. Do not change it to fit your reported narrative. (See: all of the extremely bad reportage about David Bowie that ignored the sexual assault allegation for which he was never indicted but emphasized his relationship with Lori Mattix/Maddox, a relationship that Mattix herself reports as consensual.)
  3. Be clear about your own biases as a reporter without inserting yourself into the middle of someone else’s sexual assault story. Remember that it is not your story, but the framework you use to tell it should be visible. There is no such thing as objective reporting here.
  4. FACT CHECK EVERYTHING. SCRUTINIZE IT TO THE MOST INCREDIBLY DILIGENT DEGREE. DO NOT RUSH TO PUBLISH IF YOU CAN POSSIBLY AVOID IT. I CANNOT STRESS THIS ENOUGH. (If you have legal resources, either through or outside your publication, use them!)
  5. If you are not someone who has experience reporting these kinds of issues, please talk to someone in the field who does before your story goes to press.
  6. Do not write a story without even attempting to contact the person on the other side of the allegations. Blind-item gossip-type reportage hurts public allegations immensely.
  7. Do not ever, ever pressure someone to tell their sexual assault story to you. If they don’t want to talk, let them go. The story (and your ego) are not more important than their safety and autonomy.
  8. Be careful about reporting allegations (from either side) as indisputable fact. Be very clear about context and perspective. This is where your legal resources come in handy as well. Use them. If you do not have them, hand the story off to someone who does or try to find a venue that does to publish in.
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