When Maya Angelou died last week, many of the remembrances of the poet included variants on one of Angelou’s oft-repeated maxims: “The first time someone shows you who they are, believe them.” This is a powerful idea, and Angelou applied it to many different situations, from encouraging Oprah Winfrey not to trick herself that bad partners would change to telling students in her writing classes at Wake Forest to remain open to the stories that might be entrusted to them.
The saying and its variants have been in my mind for another reason this week. The resignation of Cambodian anti-sex trafficking activist Somaly Mam from the foundation that bears her name after an internal investigation prompted by allegations (some made by her ex-husband) that she fabricated details of her own experience of being sold into sexual slavery raises important questions for journalists.
I agree with my colleague Erik Wemple that New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who has promoted Mam’s work and amplified the stories of women aided by Mam’s foundation, ought to audit his own reporting to see whether he published stories that were not true. But Kristof’s trust in his source is a small example of a much larger conundrum. How should reporters balance their mandates to seek out sources whose voices have been obscured and to minimize harm to their subjects with the need to deliver accurate information to their readers? In particular, what are the best practices for verifying the stories of survivors of sexual assault and trafficking?
One place to start is by acknowledging that many studies conclude that the rates of false reports of sexual assault are quite low: between two and eight percent of reported assaults. The rates are somewhat higher when researchers simply go by what law enforcement officers decide are false reports, rather than weighing interviews with both people making reports and the people receiving them. But the numbers remain quite small.
The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism also cautions that just because an account is contradictory or incoherent does not mean it is untrue.
“Frequently survivors of sexual violence ‘shut down’ emotionally: their recall may become fragmentary, and in some cases they may even block out an event entirely,” the Center advises in its guidelines about interviewing survivors. “Incomplete and contradictory accounts are not prima facie evidence of deception, but rather of the struggle interviewees may experience in making sense of what happened to them.”
The Society of Professional Journalists encourages those who adopt its code of ethics to “be sensitive when seeking or using interviews or photographs of those affected by tragedy or grief,” and to “recognize that gathering and reporting information may cause harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance.” (I reached out to SPJ’s on-call ethics experts with more specific questions but have not yet heard back.)
To get beyond general principles, Dart Center director Bruce Shapiro pointed me to the work of Kristen Lombardi, presently a staff writer with the Center for Public Integrity and a former fellow at the Dart Center who has covered clergy sexual abuse in Boston and sexual assaults on college campuses.
In a 2008 Dart Center fact sheet, Lombardi and a past president of the center emphasized that reporters should start by explaining to survivors what the reporting process will look like, including the steps to verify survivors’ accounts. Such disclosure can help prepare survivors for what it will actually mean to participate in a news story so that reportorial due diligence will not come as a surprise.
Lombardi emphasized the importance of choosing subjects who were willing to go through that process, and to help her obtain the kinds of documents that might otherwise have been projected by privacy law, in a 2009 conversation with Shapiro.
“I needed documents. I needed to corroborate what they were saying, and, if I was going to feature their cases, I needed people who were comfortable with me filing records requests for their judicial file, talking to the school officials, signing waivers granting permission so the school officials would talk to me,” she explained of her reporting on how campuses handle sexual assaults. “I needed them knowing I was going to go to the accused student. The women knew what this accused person would say about them. At that point it became clear who was comfortable with that kind of reporting and who wasn’t.”
Going to the accused does not always produce a he-said, she-said story, Lombardi noted in another interview. In some cases, people who have been accused of sexual assault actually confirm survivors’ accounts. “The Act of Killing,” a documentary nominated for an Academy Award this year, explored that phenomenon with a different category of violence, following perpetrators of an Indonesian genocide who discussed their murders openly.
Informed consent and survivor cooperation cannot resolve all of the ethical quandaries and logistical challenges involved in reporting out survivors’ stories. Verification becomes more difficult in circumstances where survivors have not filed reports with police or educational authorities, when there are not established protocols for obtaining those reports or when authorities have been accused of assault or misconduct.
When survivors are recounting stories of abuse or sexual violence they experienced many years ago, it may be exceptionally difficult to retrace their memories. If reporters are working in languages not their own, as was the case in Kristof’s interview with Long Pross, another survivor associated with Mam’s foundation whose account has been called into question, the use of translators poses additional ethical issues. Are those translations accurate? Is the translator an appropriate one for the circumstances? How does the presence of the translator change the dynamics of the interview?
Reporters will need to answer many of these questions anew every time they cover a new case of assault or trafficking. But as the Mam case makes clear, however painful it might be to verify and report out a survivor’s story, it is important to find ethical ways to do so. The best result will be a story that is richer and has stronger context. The worst is that diligent reporters discredit an exception to the overwhelming rule before people who fabricate their own history do great damage to those many, many people who tell the truth.