Earlier this month, local news stations reported on a story about a former police officer who has been charged with multiple counts of sexual assault. According to the criminal complaint, former officer Ryan Reese would demand that female suspects have sex with him in order to avoid arrest. He did this multiple times, with two known victims, including a teenage girl. He allegedly told one victim that nobody would believe her because she was a junkie. Under Pennsylvania law, this constitutes sexual assault. Reese has been charged with one count each of rape and official oppression, and three counts each of involuntary deviate sexual intercourse (forcible compulsion) sexual assault and indecent assault.
In addition to the trauma experienced by the victims and the abuse of power at the root of these assault, a troubling aspect of this case is how it has been reported. Local news outlets have written headlines that downplay Reese’s actions and make it seem as though the sexual contact was consensual:
These headlines — talking about “improper sex” and “sexual favors” instead of rape and sexual assault — are misleading. They frame the case in a way that calls the victims’ account into question, and mischaracterizes Reese’s actions. He is alleged to have used his position of power and authority to force vulnerable women — including a 16 year old — to submit to his sexual demands. If these allegations are proven true, he is a serial sexual predator, and a danger to society. These headlines make it seem like something else entirely — that perhaps it was a consensual relationship gone sour, or that he violated some technical rules.
Every time we take a news outlet to task for this, the response is generally that they have to carefully word headlines for legal reasons. But somehow, other news outlets find ways to word headlines that are both factually accurate and legally sound. For example, in describing this same case, the Uniontown Herald Standard used this headline:
The Harrisburg Patriot News used an AP headline to convey the same information without implying that the sex was consensual:
These headlines show that it simply isn’t that difficult to write a headline (or a news story) that is accurate, and that does not imply anything about the victim. And so once again, we ask the news media to stop calling it sex. Please join us in calling out media when they use “had sex with” instead of “raped” when referring to these crimes. Tweet at media outlets, comment on their websites or Facebook pages, and complain to their stations or editors when they use such outdated, victim-blaming terminology. With social media, we have more power than ever to make a change — let’s use that power for good!