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A San Francisco Chronicle story on the kidnapping and rape of a girl wrongly said the girl "had sex with" her attackers. (Credit: SFGate.com, screenshot)

The San Francisco Chronicle reported recently on a criminal complaint against two men who are accused of kidnapping and raping a 15-year-old girl, among other charges related to drug trafficking.

But, iMediaEthics first noticed in its report on the complaint, the Chronicle said, (emphasis ours):

“According to the complaint, the girl said the men repeatedly had sex with her and locked her in the box – which was marked with her first initial – to “prove a point.'”

But, standards in reporting on rape advise against saying that rape victims had sex with alleged attackers, as iMediaEthics has written. The Los Angeles Times has standards dictating that the phrase “have sex” with “implies consent.”  And the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma advises in a tipsheet on Reporting on Sexual Violence that journalists must be careful to “get the language right.”

“Rape or assault is not ‘sex,'” the tipsheet says.

Likewise a “media toolkit” on “Reporting on Rape and Sexual Violence” from the Chicago Taskforce on Violence Against Girls & Young Women reminds journalists not to use terms like “engaging in sex” or other consensual type of language for reports on rape. The toolkit explains:

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“The implication in such language is that the victim was an active participant who was causally involved in making the crime happen, rather than a recipient of the unilaterally harmful conduct of another. Words that imply any active responsibility on the part of a child obscure the offender’s exclusive moral and legal culpability.”

iMediaEthics reached out to the San Francisco Chronicle  to learn more about its word choice. Trapper Byrne, the deputy metro editor for the Chronicle, told iMediaEthics by email that using the phrase was an error that slipped through to publication.

Byrne wrote by email:

“We used the phrase ‘repeatedly have sex with’ in error. As you note, the story earlier identifies her as a rape victim and the victim of sexual assaults, which is the phraseology we should have used at the end. I have no doubt it was an unconscious mistake by the reporter on deadline that various levels of editing failed to catch.”

iMediaEthics has reached out to Byrne asking if the Chronicle will correct and if the Chronicle has set guidelines for reporting on rape or sexual assault. We’ll update with any response.

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An ‘Error’ to Say Rape Victim ‘Had Sex with’ Attackers, San Francisco Chronicle Says

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