A condensed version was published in the St John’s Telegram
As professionals in communications, law and advocacy, we are constantly forced to recognise the power of words. When contributing to public discourse, we ask ourselves, “does my language ‘create hurdles we have to overcome before we can begin to deal effectively with complex realities?’” This question was originally posed by Canadian jurist Rupert Ross in a chapter inspiring our title. We expect the same of our journalists.
We expect this in all circumstances, but especially when reporting on sexual violence. There is a person who survived, who has experienced something deeply traumatic, who was brave enough to report it to police. 460,000 sexual assaults happen every year in Canada; 99% of assailants walk free, yet only 0.3% end in conviction. It is not only the justice system that fails survivors: coverage of the Snelgrove trial is just one example of many reports that have adopted language that protects, even serves, perpetrators. These words don’t embody “objective facts”. Journalists must “weigh the public’s interest against possible harm,” and “give context as to why [they] are reporting” (source).
This style of coverage isn’t new. We witness repeated cycles of insensitive coverage – later followed by an apology or a defense – all while survivors suffer further trauma. A teenager seeing “Too drunk to remember” donning the cover of the morning paper, is being taught that the actions of survivors, and not perpetrators, will be questioned. When only 18% of Canadians trust journalists, the industry should be concerned not to alienate the many people affected by sexual violence.
We have not written this letter to call you out. This letter is a constructive attempt to call you in. We invite you to engage with your community, break the cycle of disservice to survivors of sexual assault in Newfoundland and Labrador; and when your community speaks out to you, listen.
“[I]f thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know better” (George Orwell).
Terms like ‘rape culture’ or ‘victim-blaming’ are used to name the ways that language can legitimise violence. The language describing sexual violence can work to justify it by inferring that details of one’s personal, social or professional life are somehow relevant to their right to safety.
So how do we shift the language? “To end rape culture, we must create a consent culture” (the words of a Grade 8 student!). Media have the power to shape new discourse. For example, journalists should not refer to sexual assault as ‘sex.’ Sexual assault is not sex, it is violence, and informed journalists agree. Refrain from limiting reports to specific details lacking context: “reporters do well to understand that abuse might be part of a long-standing social problem” (source).
Ultimately, sexual assault trials often hinge on the live issue of consent. The actions of the complainant, including the number of drinks they had, are analysed by both sides, to assess their capacity to have consented to sexual activity.
Complainants face an unimaginable task appearing before a courtroom. What they thought were innocent behaviours are scrutinized, challenged and judged. They are forced to relive their trauma over and over.
Then again in the public arena: media tend to focus on the actions of the complainant, suggesting to readers that the complainant’s motives and behaviour are what ought to be questioned. After confronting the accused aggressor in court, they are then subject to the merciless court of public opinion. In this environment, it is not surprising that per 1,000 sexual assaults, merely 33 are reported to police. It is possible to employ language that supports the survivor while also respecting the defendant’s presumption of innocence. Do not shirk this responsibility.
We are counting on you
There are resources available online to guide how we report sexual assault incidents (see: Use The Right Words). Coverage should make clear that it is never the duty of survivors to have acted differently or to have taken different measures to protect themselves against a sexual assault, regardless of the trial’s outcome.
Our province is also fortunate to have community organizations dedicated to supporting survivors of sexual violence that also provide education. We invite you to seek training. The role journalists play in community is critical in constructing social discourse. We want you to take ownership of this role by watching your language: prevent harm to those impacted by sexual violence.
B.C.L/LL.B. Candidate, McGill University; Communications Consultant
M.G.S. Candidate, Memorial University;
Community Outreach Worker
Budden & Associates
 Johnson, “Limits of a Criminal Justice Response: Trends in Police and Court Processing of Sexual Assault” in Sheehy, Sexual Assault in Canada: Law, Legal Practice and Women’s Activism, 2012.