The other side of print: The experience of reporting on sexual abuse post #MeToo
The headlines feature men. Names of the rich and powerful placed alongside allegations of sexual abuse.
But it is women who share these stories. Women who voice them. Women who write them. Women have stood at the foundation of Australia’s #MeToo movement. Woman who are responsible for spotlighting an endemic culture of fear and silence in the wake of sexual harassment and assault.
From the age of 15, 1 in 6 Australian women have experienced sexual assault. It must be women who tell these stories.
The women who report these stories regularly find themselves between two worlds. One world that gives them between an inherent understanding of what it is like to be in that situation yet the other requires them to maintain a needed degree of separation to give these stories the merit they deserve.
How do these women report these stories authentically? And more importantly, how do they protect their own emotional wellbeing whilst doing so?
Three journalists who have been at the forefront of reporting on systemic sexual assault in Australia are Amy Remeikis, the political reporter for The Guardian Australia, Lucy Carter, and investigative reporters for the ABC, and a third reporter who has chosen to remain anonymous.
Amy says that working on these stories “does take a toll,” and this is a sentiment that the three of them share. Journalists can’t always isolate the stories they hear against the rest of their life, “because it’s not something you leave at the office.”
Lucy says this is because “you’re going to hear some things that are very disturbing and very distressing,” and so looking after your mental health is crucial, “because if you fall apart, you’re no use to anyone.”
For the third reporter, “there are some things that stick in your mind that never ever leave you,” and that can make coping with the work you’re doing quite difficult.
Within journalism, there can be a culture that normalises a “gung-ho kind of attitude,” which, according to Lucy, can making seeking support difficult. It creates an environment where “you want to prove” that you can handle it and “that you’re like that.”
According to the Australian Institute for Health and Welfare, up to 75% of Australians will experience a potentially traumatic event at some point in their lives. So, journalists must take care of their mental health, especially when reporting on traumatic events such as sexual assault and harassment, as they are inundated with these trauma’s than most of the population and are required to package those traumas into something that the public can consume.
The sort of things that can affect you can vary. In one journalists case, she’s found that with experience, “on the whole you become used to it,” yet when faced with moments where “people who are supposed to do the right thing,” actively do not, she sees it as a failure towards the people who come forward with their stories and is “really hard to come to terms with.”
And when working on these stories, stress comes with the territory.
One such story that Lucy described as “terrifying” to work on and then sit on, was Four Corners’ investigation into an unnamed cabinet minister committing an alleged historical rape. Outside of Four Corners, this cabinet minister was quickly revealed as Christian Porter, who has been accused of allegedly sexually assaulting a young woman at a debating conference in 1988.
Lucy worked on the story and, and her and her team were both acutely aware of the exact impact the story would have. This means there is an extra layer of research that goes into these reports. Lucy’s main source of fear comes because “you don’t want to let the person [whose story you’re telling] down.” To corroborate and validate these stories, it can take up to hundreds of interviews, meticulous research, and cross referencing the information you have with other sources, because “you also know you can’t report something without all the checks and balances.”
For the third reporter, it can be “nerve wracking” to report on these stories, especially in the fallout out when high profile people have supporters who are then “going to bat for them,” and undermining the whole purpose of the story.
This is also reflected in how these stories are reported. Amy says, “we never actually put the onus on the assaulters, we only focus on the victims,” which in turn, can then put the focus on the women writing these stories.
There is “undeniably” a degree of sexism in the reaction towards women who are writing these stories, which spills into how these stories are received as “the backlash is real, but people have become more respective towards reading these stories.”
There is a burden of importance that women carry when reporting on sexual abuse. “People need to be held accountable for their behaviour, for the damage they’ve done,” Lucy says, highlighting a deep seeded culture that has allowed assaulters to take the agency of others, their bodies, without consequence, “especially people in power”
And this is something that nearly all women recognise. The third reporter says that “I don’t think I have a single friend who hasn’t experienced something that when, you look into it with a court of law, would be considered a crime,” exemplifying the inherent understanding women have of the systemic structures that contribute to the mass wave of sexual abuse that has been reported, because women exist in it.
This why these journalists feel a responsibility to report on these stories. Amy says she felt a responsibility to report on this as she describes her need to tell the “other side of the story” so we don’t lose focus on the issues at hand and “so that it isn’t just something that people can move on from.”
#MeToo is slowly shifting public discourse on sexual assault and harassment, and the third reporter thinks “that generational shift [between younger women and older women] has been a really big part of the reason why this has come to the fore.”
And whilst Amy is clear that with the onset of #MeToo, “nothing has changed majorly,” she echo’s this sentiment, finding hope in that “we’re letting a lot of women lead the conversation,” and that there is always a benefit towards some people getting “forced to listen to hard truths they didn’t want to listen to.”
Afterall, “people’s stories are the one thing they own.” It’s high time we tell them.