The options for reporting sexual assault are all faulty to some degree, so it’s completely understandable why so many victims don’t come forward. Tell police, and risk being dismissed (as I was), or going through the invasive experience of having a rape kit done only to have it sit on a shelf somewhere, untested, so your case can’t proceed. If your case makes it to trial, there’s no guarantee that the public and emotionally taxing experience will yield any kind of conviction (and, of course, the effects and utility of incarceration are debatable). Tell friends and family, and risk not being believed and being shunned from social circles.
It’s also completely understandable, given all of this, why some turn to social media to air their stories, as musician Larkin Grimm did last Thursday. Social media has absolutely changed the way we communicate; amid all the daily tedium and pettiness there is a chance for traditionally marginalized voices to capture public attention and take advantage of networking in a way that has, in the past, been closely guarded by institutional gatekeepers (like the old-boys network in every industry). Social media, too, is how we find out about and discuss cases like Kesha’s lawsuit, like the story of Heathcliff Berru that broke on Twitter, like the story of Jackie Fox.
It feels like a watershed moment, right now, for the music industry and for society at large. The decades-old code of industry silence around sexual assault and harassment is starting to crack, as stories come out and sunlight starts to disinfect the dusty old catacombs, doubtless influenced by the cultural moment we’re in. This moment has been hard-fought-for. I have been involved in sexual assault survivors’ advocacy for about 25 years now, since I reported my own rape as a tween and was confronted immediately with a broken system. The activism I have been a part of was already in full swing when I joined in. This resistance, too, is decades old. (For those who haven’t been embedded in it, as I have been, it’s easy to think it – and all current social justice movements – sprung fully formed from the forehead of Tumblr or Twitter. But all those platforms have truly done is make communication for and by the marginalized, across traditional boundaries, possible.)
As with any watershed moment, though, there is the potential for danger. Social media, while immediate and easy to access, is also worrisome. We entertainment industry reporters, under the pressure of tight deadlines and pressure to produce more and more Content, have a tendency to just take whatever is happening in the industries we cover on social media, copy over a few hyperlinks, embed a tweet or two, and call it an article. (This is how we end up with 24/7 breathless coverage of Kanye’s Twitter feed on every major website.) When it comes to goofy tweets and who’s-kissing-who gossip, this mode of reporting news is mostly harmless. But when it comes to sexual assault allegations, it’s downright terrifying.
Sexual assault allegations deserve due diligence. They deserve to be reported carefully, with every fact checked. They deserve more time than the quick turnover of social media. They deserve to be reported as news, not as salacious gossip. As the dam of silence continues to break in the music industry, I suspect we’ll see more and more skeletons and garbage washing ashore; the stories we’ve seen so far are the tip of a very, very deep iceberg, as those of us who have been around the industry for some time know well.
I know very well that false accusations are incredibly rare (rigorous research in recent years, taking into account the fact that determining falsehood is itself a concept fraught with issues, places the average percentage of false accusations between 2 and 8%). I know that most people who come forward, like I did, have little to gain and everything to lose. Yet, because of the quick pace at which social media and the coverage thereof moves, I worry about two things, the latter more than the former: the potential for abuse of the current social movement to believe survivors (this cultural moment is, in and of itself, a good thing), and the veracity of survivors’ stories being called into question even more often than is already happening if they are not carefully reported, especially if they don’t fit predetermined narratives.
We have already seen an observable effect on cultural dialogue from high-profile stories that were not reported well (the Rolling Stone UVA affair, for example). Writer and former fact-checker Maya Dusenbery did an excellent job of examining what went wrong with the reporting on that case, and Vice Sports’ Jessica Luther, who has reported carefully on sexual assault cases in her field, argues brilliantly that even rigorous fact-checking wouldn’t fix core problems revealed by Rolling Stone’s UVA rape reporting: that that story ignored the source’s safety, that the reporter in question ignored her subject’s attempts to back out of the story, and that the reporter attempted to force her story into a particularly salacious narrative.
In the case of Larkin Grimm, the social media-driven narrative is a relatively fortunate one; her own telling of her story was careful, thoughtful, and kind-hearted, asking nothing but to be heard. When social media-driven accusations ask for some sort of action from the audience, like a boycott of the artist’s work, the discussion around them can become even more contentious. There were certainly many heightened nerves – on all sides – on social media when the initial Facebook post appeared, despite its clarity and pacifist tone. As the initial reports came, most of them just replicating Grimm’s post and pointing to them, I worried. My colleagues at Pitchfork reported Grimm’s accusations alongside the social media response of the man she accused, Michael Gira of Swans, taking as balanced an approach as possible.
Then, Gira released a second statement through his publicist, and a “slanderous lie” became “an awkward mistake.” Publications wisely let his change in story speak for itself, Grimm responded smartly and coolly, and the social media furor ebbed as everyone paying attention to the narrative made up their own minds about what Gira’s changing story meant. Yet, if there had been no change, if Gira had continued to strongly insist that there was no core of truth in Grimm’s accusations, if there had been calls for Swans boycotts, if there had been legal proceedings of any kind – the murk and vitriol would surely have deepened, and there would have been need for extra care in subsequent reporting on the case (rather than just paying attention to the social media back-and-forth).
Each case needs to be considered – and written about – on its own, with care and context. Reporting these cases fairly and accurately may require changing and deepening reporting strategies, including considerable background research and fact-checking. The rush to report is seductive, especially in this age of Endless Content, but these cases are fundamentally different from most of the work entertainment journalists do. We need literacy in how to report on sexual assault from people with experience; we need training and open discussion in our field to make sure we are attentive to the language we use and the implications of that language, as well as proper reporting and sourcing for people who do not usually report hard news, and so forth. As the iceberg melts, we will need to be prepared for the rising tides. We have the chance to make things less terrible in the industry we cover, and we need to be conscious of how to do that if we are to truly make a change.