An invitation for reporters to examine their ethics

Members of the journalism community probably won’t take Christine Blasey Ford’s clear invitation to examine how they report on the survivors of sexual assault.

We spend an inordinate amount of time patting ourselves on the back for not revealing the names of those people, while working overtime to find out what the names are.

It’s still unclear exactly how she was outed after sending her letter to Sen. Diane Feinstein anonymously. But her description in today’s testimony certainly painted a picture familiar with reporters.

“Reporters appeared at my home and at my job demanding information about this letter, including in the presence of my graduate students,” Ford said. “They called my boss and coworkers and left me many messages, making it clear that my name would inevitably be released to the media.”

“We are taught to push past the inevitable discomfort, to ignore the triggering of our internal barometers of empathy, and then to wear that feat as badge of honor,” Alexandria Neason and Nausicaa Renner write on the Columbia Journalism Review website today.

In the case of Ford, that approach contributed significantly to a campaign that pushed a victim of sexual assault to come forward in the most high stakes and public way possible. The impact of normal reporting tactics, twisted by those who wished to discredit her, became too much for Ford to bear.

During the hearing, she said that the past two months have been the worst period of her life since she suffered the assault itself. After her name was revealed in the press, Ford found herself at the receiving end of harassment and death threats that came by email and phone.

She was called vulgar names. Strangers posted her personal information on the internet. Just two days ago, Ford said, her work email was hacked, and messages were erroneously sent on her behalf recanting her description of assault. Her family—Ford is a mother of two boys—was forced to leave their home in the company of security guards.

The media is complicit in that response. Today, Ford described the replay of trauma she experienced as she watched her life picked apart on television news programs. As pundits speculated about her motives, they did harm not only to her, but, in their willful ignorance of research that tells why assaulted women do not speak up, an entire population.

In particularly bad taste was an avalanche of coverage from right-wing outlets questioning her story before the testimony: everything from “A Spectral Witness Materializes” from The Wall Street Journal to a Fox News piece that called Ford’s story an “ambush” on Kavanaugh.

“While young women are standing up and saying, ‘No more,’ our institutions have not progressed on how they treat women when they come forward,” Feinstein said in her opening remarks. “In essence, they are put on trial and forced to defend themselves, and often re-victimized in the process.”

The hearing shows an urgent need to examine our own ethics, they write.

It’s unlikely to happen.