"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)


on ethics and writing about rape

Amanda has a nice post over at Wronging Rights analyzing the latest in the Mac McClelland saga, which involves allegations regarding the lack of informed consent from the woman whose rape she tweeted several months back and a bunch of she said/she said back-and-forth with Mother Jones editors (see the comments section in that article).

I have no way of knowing what actually happened in this particular situation, but I expect it involved a lot of confusion, both linguistic/translation-related and otherwise. From my point of view, the basic problem goes back to the question of whether someone who has very recently suffered serious trauma can ever be capable of giving informed consent. I can't imagine what it is like to be raped in a Haitian camp for the displaced, but I'm pretty sure I wouldn't be thinking straight had it just happened to me. Add to that the victim's possible unfamiliarity with what Twitter is or what it means to be written about in the international media - not to mention that saying "yes" to McClelland may well have meant an easier, cheaper, quicker ride to the hospital - and there's just a load of issues here.

So. A few thoughts for researchers and reporters dealing with victims of violent trauma. First, researchers, this is why we have IRB's. When your interview subjects are vulnerable and may not be capable of making a well-informed decision about speaking with you, it is your responsibility to think through the implications of their decision. You may need to decide not to use information EVEN IF IT IS GIVEN if you or your IRB suspect that using that information would further endanger or traumatize a subject. It may make your research more challenging to leave that evidence out, but your theory is not more important than another person's health and safety. And if it's a good theory, you should be able to find evidence elsewhere.

Second, as Chris Blattman points out, you should not be interviewing victims of violent trauma unless you are specifically trained to do so. Seriously:
This would be a mere annoyance for the people affected by war if it weren’t also potentially hazardous. No one should consider interviewing victims of rape and violence, former child soldiers, or other potentially traumatized populations without psychological expertise and the backing of an organization that can provide services for the neediest. People are hardy, and the risk of re-traumatizing someone small, but not zero.
If you go out and interview people without training and institutional backing, you risk making their lives worse. It's that simple.

Journalists play by different rules and don't have IRB's, but they do have editors, and in my view, those editors should be upholding the highest possible ethical standards when it comes to reporting on victims of violence. Again, just because a reporter gets juicy information doesn't mean it needs to be published. Jina Moore's thoughts on the original live-tweeting story are well worth re-reading here, as is a regular re-reading of the SPJ Code of Ethics - especially the section on minimizing harm and not using real names.

I think we can do better in the ways that we report on and research the effects of violence on vulnerable people. As Amanda points out, claiming to be "voices for the voiceless" is untenable in this day and age. People can speak for themselves, and, more importantly, can be trusted to determine when they don't want their stories publicly told. We owe it to anyone who has experienced trauma to let them make real decisions, in their own time and ways. And we can do better.


Blogger Usalama said...

Nice post, and much of what I was thinking as I tried to empathize with both MacClelland and K.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011 5:49:00 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oi. Yes. Ugly situation all the way around.

Thank you for the well-reasoned perspective, and for drawing attention back to the ethics of journalism and research.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011 10:31:00 PM

Anonymous jina said...

The SPJ code of ethics is a nice aspiration but it doesn't give journalists a lot of specific tips for how to handle crisis situations. Not dissing the code -- we need it -- but it's a very blunt tool for this problem.

The Dart Center on Journalism and Trauma presents finer tools. And I've brainstormed "Five Ideas on Meaningful Consent" here.

Thursday, July 14, 2011 2:35:00 PM


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