Reporting Sexual Crimes with Sensitivity

By Emma Crameri Emma Crameri has been verified by Muck Rack's editorial team
on 16 June 2023

Several worldwide court cases involving sexual crimes have challenged the idea of whether we are reporting with enough sensitivity and privacy.

Criminal news articles need to be truthful and consider all sides of the story. All crimes need to be reported to law enforcement rather than approaching any members of the media. The priority needs to be on preserving evidence and privacy. While ensuring that any trauma or mental health symptoms are managed.

When reporting sexual violence, the safety of the witness and sources need to be considered. Overseas, some journalists risk imprisonment, interrogation, or threats so they avoid reporting on sexual assault stories due to the culture and political environment.

First Response by Law Enforcement

The Netflix documentary Victim/Suspect follows the stories of several women whose rape or sexual assault incidents are turned against them. Some police officers demonstrate poor training and deceptive interviewing techniques. Officers may lie to them about the events (usually fake videos) or other witnesses – known as a rouse. This may lead to doubts in the victim’s mind. They are generally questioned without a parent or lawyer present.

Several police officers admit to turning the case into a false allegation convection (a charge) to close the case and get it off their books quickly. 

The legal system needs to allow for a trauma-informed approach when dealing with these crimes. In most cases, a victim is likely to feel more comfortable being interviewed by a person of the same gender. There needs to be a third-party present when they are interviewed.  This could be a parent, friend, lawyer, or independently trained witness.

Trauma has an impact on behaviour, cognitive ability, and ability to recall details of the crime. Officers need to listen without judgement and allow for a narrative that may not be chronologically told the first time.

In Australia, you can report an incident, and ask not to pursue a criminal investigation.

Recently the state and federal courts have published legal documents on their websites containing personal and sensitive information. This data includes both parties’ Personally Identifiable Information (PII) and Protected Health Information (PHI).

The data includes text messages, iMessages, direct messages, emails (including attachments), encrypted communications, voice recordings and voice memos.

I have read unredacted email addresses, street addresses and phone numbers of both parties and key witnesses. I have read unredacted medical reports and police reports. I have read unredacted logins and passwords to communication and social media accounts, which could lead to unauthorized access to other accounts and platforms.

For active court cases, this raises serious privacy concerns.

Misconceptions Surrounding Sexual Offending

There are many misconceptions surrounding sexual offending. Some of these are poor representations in the media, stereotypes, myths, and a lack of education.

Victims underreport incidents due to feelings of shame, confusion, guilt or shock about the offence. They may fear the offender and any consequences of reporting. They might blame themselves or not recognise the behaviours as a sexual offence. The biggest fear is that they will not be believed.

Victoria Police and the Australian Institute of Family Studies found the following facts:

  • National and international research consistently demonstrates that incidents of rape, sexual offences and child sexual abuse are significantly under-reported, under-prosecuted, and under-convicted.
  • Most rapes are committed by someone known to the victim, often in a familiar residential location.
  • Most offenders have a prior relationship with the victim and do not need to use significant physical violence to commit their sexual offence(s). During the assault, victims may be more likely to freeze and cooperate.
  • Following rape trauma, a person may not remember everything and different parts of memory may come back at different times.
  • Alcohol is the most common drug of choice that offenders intentionally use to incapacitate a victim before committing a sexual offence.
  • Most rapes or other sexual offending occur away from public view such as at home.
  • Evidence shows credibility is not related to emotional display. A victim’s emotions are likely to change during different stages of the legal process.
  • Some males are victims, and some females sexually offend.
  • People with disabilities are over-represented as victims of sexual offences and often face many extra barriers to reporting them.

Misconceptions in the Media

Films and television shows, such as Law and Order show sex offenders depicted in a felonious and nefarious manner. These promote stereotypes about their gender, age, race/ethnicity, marital status, and victim type. Offenders are portrayed in a manner that supports the myths that they are violent, incurable, and likely to re-offend.

Journalism Tactics and Errors

When reporting on crimes there may be a problematic lack of context or a focus on the provocative or salient aspects of the event. As a result, sensationalized articles frame news in a way that detracts from important information related to the story. This might include:

  • Use of highly descriptive and figurative language.
  • No sources attributed to the information.
  • Relying on the police as the sole source of information.
  • No context is provided regarding crimes. Articles often ignore the historical and cultural interpretation of events.
  • No published and peer-reviewed statistical information or research is provided.

A recent legal case has uncovered some dirty tactics used by commercial journalists.

When conducting a briefing meeting with your subject, a journalist should not be suggesting angles, or words and phrases to use. Consent needs to be asked before, during and after the research phase. Consent needs to be obtained before each story is published.

When contacting a person in the story, a journalist dropped the questions before 3 pm on a Friday. The letter contained a deadline for a reply at 10 am the following Monday. The person had only around 3 hours of normal working time to contact their lawyers and provide an adequate response. This is an unrealistic timeframe.

Publishing Names of Victims in the Media

The National Alliance to End Sexual Violence believes “publicizing the name of a rape complainant … only deters more victims from coming forward.”

Journalists need to report these stories with sensitivity toward the stigma associated with being publicly named. There is an extraordinary amount of shame, guilt and silence following the crime.

It is recommended that news organizations do not publish the names of adults or minors involved in sexual assaults.

Impact of Sexual Violence on Mental Health

According to the National Violence Against Women Prevention Research Center, rape survivors:

  • about 31% develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms during their lifetime.
  • about 30% experience a major depressive episode.
  • an increased possibility of suicide.

False Rape Allegations

Research studies show the rate of false reports for rape is about the same as it is for other crimes, with only 2-8% of rape reports classified as false.

Journalists are not Counsellors

It raises serious ethical and exploitative reasons for talking to the media before law enforcement. Journalists usually have no training in psychology, counselling, or trauma skills. 

Incidents need to be reported to police or law enforcement as a priority. Even if the survivor is unsure how they wish to proceed or unsure about the events, including near misses. In my personal experience, human resources are there to protect the company, not the individual.

The Decline of Quality Commercial Journalism

Commercial journalists fear dwindling viewer numbers and listeners. A sports journalist said he could be sacked any day if his views weren’t high enough.

Writing news articles has become about generating outrage or strong emotion. There is a focus on writing a compelling and clickable title that people will want to share. This is called clickbait. There’s nothing worse than reading an article and feeling unfilled because it was fluff and had no substance. You know you’ve been conned.


Recent court cases in Australia and overseas have highlighted a pressing need to improve responsible journalism, particularly in regard to reporting on sexual crime, violence and harassment.

Well-written and researched news may be hard to access. These are hidden behind paywalls and paid subscriptions to email and Substack newsletters. If only rich people can afford to access the news, are we creating an information-poor community?

If you’re not reading independent news, then you might be consuming gossip, junk news and corporate propaganda.  #aftermetoo

Find Counselling Support

If you have been sexually offended or harassed, and you are looking for counselling support, you can contact:

  • Centres Against Sexual Assault, telephone 1800 806 292 (after-hours service available)
  • National Sexual Assault and Domestic Family Violence Counselling Service, telephone 1800 RESPECT (737 732).

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