Brutalized, then Betrayed

4th March, 2011

By Joan Connell – Republished by kind permission of Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma

The sexual assault endured by CBS correspondent Lara Logan in the chaos of Cairo’s Tahrir Square on Feb. 11‚ reported in a brief statement by her employer, brings to the forefront what has been a largely private conversation among female war correspondents about the distinct hazards they face.

The subsequent coverage of Logan’s ordeal also raises two key concerns for news organizations: How does any high-profile story of sexual assault get told? What are the responsibilities of news organizations when a journalist who has been sexually assaulted in the line of duty returns home?

“Women have risen to the top of war and foreign reportage,” writes Judith Matloff, a former correspondent for Reuters and the Christian Science Monitor, now a professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. “They run bureaus in dodgy places and do jobs that are just as dangerous as those that men do. But there is one area where they differ from the boys‚ sexual harassment and rape.”

“Female reporters are targets in lawless places where guns are common and punishment rare,” says Matloff, who has written extensively on the challenges faced by women reporters, including the first major article on sexual harassment and assault among female war correspondents.

Evidence suggests that the need to be perceived as a full player in the highly competitive and mostly male world of conflict reporting has led many victims of sexual assault to keep silent. In fact, a 2005 study of female war reporters by the International News Safety Institute revealed that 82 percent of respondents reported physical attack or intimidation while covering conflict and more than 55 percent reported sexual harassment or abuse.

A series of dismissive Tweets about Logan by foreign correspondent and author Nir Rosen‚ which led to Rosen’s resignation from a New York University fellowship‚ suggests why the broader issue of sexual assault on assignment has been so difficult to discuss.

According to CBS, Logan became separated from her camera and security crew in Tahrir Square on Friday, as crowds celebrated the resignation of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. She suffered a “brutal and sustained sexual assault and beating,” according to CBS, and was eventually saved from the mob by a group of Egyptian women and some 20 soldiers.  Transported back to the United States, she has been released from the hospital and is currently at home in Washington, D.C. with her family.

Logan’s employer so far has issued only a terse statement of her ordeal, citing her family’s request for privacy. Other news organizations have not been so circumspect. “When the news of the attack broke Tuesday afternoon, it took all of minutes before somebody decided to hinge the story on the blonde reporter’s looks,” writes Mary Elizabeth Williams in a thoughtful dispatch on Salon, noting a stunningly offensive blog post in the LA Weekly in which Logan’s “hotness” and personal sexual life were deemed factors in the assault. This and other sensational reporting raises basic questions about how any high-profile or celebrity rape should be reported, according to Elana Newman, research director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma.

Reporting only what you know is the first guideline to follow in the immediate aftermath of a sexual assault. (The International Federation of Journalists has developedguidelines for the reporting of violence against women.) Choosing the right terminology is also crucial.

“What do we call this?” Newman asks. “Is this rape? Is this sexual assault? Is it kidnapping and torture in a public place? Was Logan sexually assaulted because she is a woman? Because she is a reporter? Because she is a westerner? It could be all of these things or none of them. At this initial stage there are so many unknowns, journalists need to choose their terms carefully. It’s important to focus only on what is known‚ and to ask yourself what it would be like if it were your loved one‚ your mother, your sister, your brother, who was the subject of this story.”

It’s also important not to make presumptions about the assault’s long-term impact on a victim, whether a celebrity or not. Sexual assault can result in depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a reaction to a traumatic event that can include anxiety, flashbacks and intrusive memories, emotional numbing, among other symptoms. But Newman says that’s not always the case.

“People who are sexually assaulted generally heal. They will always have the memory of the event, but people do recover. We shouldn’t assume that they are always going to be damaged.”

That said, when a journalist is sexually assaulted in the pursuit of a story, news managers and colleagues should proceed carefully.

“Journalists in particular may have a hard time finding a middle ground in such situations,” Newman says. “Journalists in general know how to ask questions about difficult situations, but it may be  harder for them to determine an appropriate way to be supportive without being intrusive. Colleagues want to tell the person you’re there for them, but don’t want to force them to disclose anything they don’t want to disclose. For example, you could say, ‘I read what happened to you and I’m sorry for what you experienced. Let me know if you need anything.'”

News managers should assemble all available resources for correspondents who have been traumatized, particularly access to a clinician who has expertise in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s important, Newman says,  to allow the correspondent to take charge of his or her own recovery.

Journalists injured in the line of duty don’t necessarily want to be shipped off to therapy as if it’s the only option. Often, they benefit most from some downtime, a short vacation of a week or so, to reacclimate. “Social support is really important,” Newman says. “And so is a sense of mission. If you are hurt in the pursuit of the story, sometimes the story may be more important than how much you’re hurting. You don’t take people’s work away from them if that’s what they need.”

The first month after an assault is the most difficult. If, after a month, the victim is still having difficulty sleeping or working, or is encountering other issues, she should be encouraged to seek professional help. If after three months she is experiencing personal problems or problems in the workplace, seeking professional help takes on greater urgency.

It is common for reporters to prefer private psychotherapists over employee assistance plans or other management-provided options. For a journalist sexually assaulted on the job, the newsroom should support that choice and make additional resources available if insurance is inadequate.

Newman notes that male correspondents can also fall victim to sexual assault. Current research among veterans indicates that male sexual assault is an under-reported but relevant issue in combat zones. And the stigma attached to male sexual assault renders its prevalence unknown among journalists as well as military personnel.

“To be sexually assaulted, tortured or victimized in pursuit of a story renders a journalist helpless. Your sense of control is taken away,” Newman says. “I would urge management dealing with these situations to help restore a sense of choice and meaning by respecting, within reason, the wishes of the individual.”

Dart Center Tips Sheet: Covering Volatile Street Protests

LPB Egyptian Revolution Motion – Passed Tuesday 22 February 2011

This branch supports our fellow media colleagues in Egypt, their successful struggle to overthrow Hosni Mubarak and their continued strikes and protests for a free media and towards a democratically run society.

We condemn the attacks on foreign and local media. The intimidation, abduction, torture and murder of our colleagues and Egyptian citizens by pro Mubarak forces.

This branch is also outraged by the sexist comments about CBS journalist Lara Logan following reports of her sexual assault and beaten whilst covering events in Tahrir Square. This is a classic case of blaming the victim.

Men and women in the media should be free to document world events without fear of such targeting. Our role as news gatherers must be respected and we must be allowed to work without intimidation, arrest, attack or harassment.

This branches sends solidarity greetings to the newly formed free and democratic unions in Egypt and our sister media organisation. We also send our best wishes to Lara Logan for a speedy recovery.

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