Guidance On A Sensitive Subject: Victims/Survivors Of Sexual Assault

We’re going to be doing more reporting in coming weeks and months about sexual assaults on campuses, the way the cases are handled by universities and legislation that’s working its way through Congress.

There will probably be several words or phrases that we have to consider carefully as the stories develop.

This came up this morning: “Rape victim” or “rape survivor?”

Here’s how we approached the question. The process may provide guidance not only on this particular issue, but on how to think about others that come up.

– First, we have to be careful about referring to someone as a victim or survivor before there’s evidence (police reports, medical reports, etc.) about what happened. Bear in mind that if there’s a victim/survivor, that means we’re telling our audience that there’s an attacker or attackers. We don’t want to be prejudging. When such stories begin, we’re typically dealing with allegations, not verdicts.

– Second, as we’ve said in other cases (immigration, for example), it’s best not to put labels on people. It is better to focus on acts. So, rather than declare that someone is a survivor or a victim, we should describe what happened or what has been alleged. That simplifies the issue. She’s not a “rape survivor” or “rape victim.” She is a young woman “who was raped” or whom “police say was sexually assaulted in her dorm room.” Again, though, be careful not to prejudge.

– But, if there’s a need to choose, we look at the definitions of the words. According to our go-to dictionary, (Webster’s New World College Dictionary), in this case both words apply:

Survivor: “person or thing that survives; specif., a person who has survived an ordeal or great misfortune.”

Victim: “someone or something killed, destroyed, injured, or otherwise harmed by, or suffering from, some act, condition, or circumstance.”

– We could stop there and use either. However, one of our core values involves “respect in sensitive circumstances”:

“NPR journalists show sensitivity when seeking or using interviews of those affected by tragedy or grief.”

That doesn’t mean we automatically refer to people by the terms or words that they want to be called. On matters that are politically charged, we do not adopt the language of one side over the other’s. But we are sensitive to those who have been seriously injured. And if either word is correct, the sensitive choice is the one that respects their feelings. Many of those who have been sexually assaulted make a forceful case that they are not just victims, they are survivors.

So, on this issue, the guidance would be: a) try not to “label; b) either word is correct; but c) “survivor” is more sensitive to those we are reporting about.

(Memmos; July 31, 2014)

July 31, 2014

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