Tabloids and Hollywood news shows often do not constitute real journalism. However, the public’s growing fascination in the sordid details of the lives of public figures has been seeping over to respected news outlets for quite some time now.
The recent coverage of the Rihanna/Chris Brown incident has left a sour taste in my mouth. From “inside sources,” to quotes without attribution, to even referring to sources as “our snitch,” the Rihanna assault coverage is beginning to seem like a high school locker room full of whispers passing on the “he said, she said.”
The LA Times reporter’s decision to name Rihanna as the victim of the assault on Grammy night is something that deserves delving into. As journalists, we have a policy to never name victims of rape. For obvious reasons, should their information be printed, subsequent attacks on that person would be more likely. We also take into account the intimate nature of the crime. However, assault is another story. It contains more of a case-by-case naming basis. As the LA Times journalist Andrew Blankstein, who first leaked Rihanna’s name, told the LA Observed, "The Times has a blanket policy when it comes to not naming victims of sexual assault. There isn't a set policy when it comes to physical assault or a criminal threat.”
The Huffington Post criticized the LA Times for reporting Rihanna was the victim when the police had yet to confirm this fact, citing “state laws meant to protect abuse victims' privacy." Many other news outlets chose to leave the victim as an unidentified female.
Fellow journalist Lindsay Toler and I were discussing the matter and she brought up a good point. Since Brown hasn’t been charged with anything more than making criminal threats (unless you’re reading US Magazine, which says he was arrested and charged for assault), we don’t really know what happened. According to a report from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, most sexual assault happens between people who know each other. We don’t know for sure (though we’re fairly certain) Rihanna was beaten, and we are definitely not sure of the extent, which could be sexual.
“Where did this assumption that women are either raped OR beaten come from? And how will the Los Angeles Times feel if it comes out that Rihanna is a sexual assault survivor as well as a domestic violence survivor?” Lindsay said.
We look at rape as a crime of passion, emotion and abuse, but is assault all that different? As Lindsay said, “Both crimes are about control, manipulation and intimidation. Both usually involve two people who know each other intimately. Both can be emotionally traumatic in ways that other crimes simply aren’t. There’s only one difference between the two: one involves sexual contact while the other doesn’t.”
How can we as journalists differentiate between these? I don’t think we can or should be allowed to. The loophole here for the LA Times is that Rihanna is a public figure. Rihanna has, as one of my favorite MU professors, Sandy Davidson, puts it, thrust herself into the vortex of the public. With that fame comes a loss of privacy. But the average individual who is assaulted is still at just as much risk of a second attack should their information be published, similar to a rape victim. Although we are dealing with a celebrity, this case should draw our attention to the way the media deal with assault for private individuals and whether or not the current system is working.
The media are already crucifying Chris Brown with leaked photos of Rihanna with her wounds and unnamed family members of Rihanna speaking out against Brown. I am not here to defend him at all, but since his apology didn’t really state what he was sorry for, and no one has come out to say what happened, the media can’t simply jump to conclusions.
The problem seems to be our society lacks the knowledge of how to cover assault and abuse stories. When we hear anything about abuse, it’s normally in the form of a story on a new women’s shelter or covering a woman who finally snapped and killed an abusive husband. The issue is either underplayed or overly dramatized when a woman is put on trial for the murder of a husband or boyfriend.
And in the accuracy and accountability realm, these media outlets are epically failing when it comes to sourcing. Evidence: When talking about Rihanna’s 21st birthday celebration sans Chris Brown, OK! Magazine reports, “'Rihanna so wanted Chris with her on her big day, but obviously realizes why they can’t be together right now,’ our insider says. ‘But it’s becoming more and more clear that she can’t be without him.’”
WELT Online says, “A source told the New York Daily News newspaper: ‘Chris called Rihanna to wish her a happy birthday. He's absolutely trying to get back into her good graces. He knows he's very much in the doghouse right now, and is doing everything he can to show her how sorry he is.’”
The Star Online says, “A source has said that the couple are still kids, and therefore still immature in handling (a) relationship.”
Why was there a need for anonymity to say any of that?
Just because these magazines and Web sites aren’t the first places we go to get our concrete news doesn’t mean these people should be below the line of good journalism. Unnamed sources should appear much less frequently in any and all publications because it contributes to the public’s already steady distrust in the media. And if we can’t even get infotainment stories right, how can the public expect us to get the hard-nosed, real journalism stories correct?
As Harvey Levin (of TMZ.com of all places) told Fox News’ Greta Van Susteren, “… We've heard various things, you know, since this all happened. We've heard she wants nothing to do with him. We heard she's going to sue him. We heard she's going to press charges. We've heard she's not. We've heard she's texting him. There are a lot of rumors going around, and I don't really put a lot of credence in any of them, which is why we haven't put any of that stuff up on the site because I don't think it's concrete enough.”
If even TMZ isn’t putting it up on their website, it must be pretty shaking stuff.
Which is why standing in the Walmart checkout aisle the other day, I couldn’t help being surprised when I noticed Rihanna’s face on every magazine. “She still loves him!” PEOPLE magazine reports. “Fear and Abuse! Beaten, bitten, left on road & ‘in shock’: what happened,” reports US Magazine. The list goes on.
And because they are running out of anonymous sources, magazines are seeking out the opinions of celebrities on the matter. “You hear a new one every five minutes,” Carrie Underwood told US Magazine about the Rihanna/Chris Brown rumors. “I really hope everyone will lay off and just let everybody who’s involved figure out everything first.”
Maybe the media will take Underwood's advice and leave it to those actually involved in the matter to supply us with information. I say it’s the best (and most reliable) quote I’ve seen about the incident so far.
Tracy Barnes graduated from MU in 2008 with degrees in journalism and English. She is a former copy editor and multimedia editor for the Missourian. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.