On consent and sensitivity.

About 10 years ago, I was a staff writer for the Hyde Park Herald, a community weekly that paid in Trident Layers. One day, I was assigned a story on neighborhood chess players who’d been kicked out of a Borders bookstore for ruining the aesthetic, or something. I interviewed the store manager, who later claimed that I quoted her without permission.

Three days later, I was sacked. I was livid. I didn’t understand why the woman would lie. She never deferred to a corporate rep, nor did she state that she wanted anything off the record. It was just a story about chess players. What was the big deal? I didn’t consider that the woman might have wanted her identity hidden for reasons, and I didn’t care. I was out of a job, and over a story I didn’t even want. So I chalked it up to cowardice and started taping all of my interviews from that point on.

Yesterday, @steenfox kicked off an important conversation about rape culture by asking her followers what they were wearing at the time of their assault. She asked for permission to retweet the responses, all of which were vast and jarring. Some consented; others didn’t. Some asked her to retweet them anonymously. The conversation went on for hours, with women and men sharing their stories from all parts of the globe. It was a beautiful, communal catharsis; a perfect response to an earlier discussion about Slutwalk giving women permission to “dress like sluts.”

A few hours later, Buzzfeed writer Jessica Testa wrote up the discussion, asking for permission from everyone EXCEPT the person facilitating the discussion. (Again, I would link but I’d contract something.) To Testa’s credit, she did attempt to reach out to Steen, but Steen never saw it because her mentions were filled with people sharing their testimonies. I would’ve tried again until I got a response, but that’s just me. Anyway, Testa’s published “story” consists of little more than screencapped tweets and captions. It is the laziest piece on rape culture I’ve seen thus far, and I’ve seen a LOT of lazy stuff floating on the internet.

When Steen and Testa finally talked, Testa would echo what most of her supporters–themselves media salarymen–were saying: Twitter is a public platform, and thus these tweets were fair game. “The victims’ stories don’t belong to you or Twitter,” she told Steen. Buzzfeed brass (and a number of employees) agreed. Even Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan weighed in with a condescending post, complete with links to tweets from various people who took issue with Testa and Buzzfeed. Ironically, a Daily Dot writer who wrote about the ethical pitfalls of  using tweets didn’t bother giving me a heads-up about using one of mine.

But the real issue isn’t so much about Twitter being a public space; it’s about the absolute lack of empathy, sensitivity, and thoroughness when it comes to covering stories like these and the flippant, snarky responses that come from media outlets after the inevitable fallout. Testa’s quest to be the first to break the story alienated a number of people and did irrevocable damage not only to Buzzfeed’s brand, but the public’s trust. Some expressed relief that they didn’t share their survivor stories out of fear they’d become troll fodder. Testa didn’t take into account Steen’s safety or comfort, potentially exposing her to trolls and other unsavory characters.

It’s one thing to take down racists or make fun of bad cuisine, but it’s quite another to risk the emotional (and, in some cases, physical) safety of abuse survivors for the sake of page hits. As a friend told me earlier, “The good guys should never be collateral damage.” Sexual assault is an evergreen topic that will never lose its relevancy, and with enough thought and care, Tesla could’ve done something insightful and thought-provoking with the material given. While many of us joke about Buzzfeed only being good for cat gifs and listcles, they’ve produced some very solid journalism in the last year. Clearly, they’re capable of doing better. They just didn’t choose to do better here.

Anyway, to see how responsible journalism is done, please refer to Jenee Desmond-Harris’s interview with Steen on The Root.

12 thoughts on “On consent and sensitivity.

  1. Excellent, excellent article. You nailed the tone perfectly. As a blogger about a sensitive topic, I am usually astounded by the complete lack of empathy or sensitivity that many others use when they attempt to tell another’s story — without their consent and typically lacking in sensitivity. Thank you for sharing such cohesive thoughts. Well received over here.

  2. Three tired points, maybe even painfully so:
    1. Stuff that’s out there is potentially forever. As we tell all teenagers.
    2. Expectation of confidentiality has not been tested in this situation as far as I know, but likely a finding would affirm that public is public.
    3. Netiquette is simple in this case. There are plenty of signals available to anyone paying attention that the conversation was privileged and ought to have remained reasonably organic.

  3. Thank you for writing this piece! I work with sexual assault survivors daily and the trauma survivors face from unethical media coverage is astounding and infuriating! I hope your piece helps your readers understand the importance of consent and responsibility when it comes to journalism.

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