The last thing you want a breaking news story regarding a high-profile sexual misconduct allegation to sound like is a work of short fiction. Given our present model of justice overwhelmingly fails victims, with only 0.6% of sexual assaults in the United States resulting in prosecution, they need all the help they can get.
Yet, when on Sunday night a small millennial lifestyle publisher ran an account of alleged misconduct by actor Aziz Ansari, fiction was exactly what came to mind. Many on social media stated the story reminded them of the viral one night stand horror story Cat Person.
While all research suggests that false reporting of sexual misconduct is rare, the idea that accusations might be fabrication is still used as a cudgel with which to beat victims. High-profile allegations, which turn out to be false, such as Rolling Stone’s journalistically (and eventually financially) catastrophic coverage of gang rape at the University of Virginia further compound the emotional and legal troubles of real victims.
Given we live in a reality that has been meticulously set up through millennia of oppression to deny women justice; when your reporting seeks to do the opposite, you must be just as meticulous. Your story must meet the highest possible standards of accuracy. It must be precise with its details and crafted to protect the victim or victims both legally and from further trauma, as much as it is possible to do so.
This takes a team not just of reporters, but of fact-checkers, editors and lawyers. It takes a team that, in the financially challenged world of publishing, is difficult for all but the most established newsrooms to assemble. It takes judgement and experience.
If Babe had such a team, they’re more liberal in their expression than any legal department I’ve ever worked with — and I don’t break news. It focused on the story of “Grace”, an anonymous source who met Ansari at a party, exchanged phone numbers with him, then went on a date that ended in sex acts that left her feeling “violated”. Later in the piece, she’s more specific, stating “it took a really long time for me to validate this as sexual assault”.
The piece spools with details. Though the source is anonymous, there’s enough specificity about who she is that it would be easy for Ansari, or a third party, to identify her. It has the structure of a narrative, not a news report, beginning with how the pair met. It lingers on the details of their date prior to the incident.
After arriving at his apartment in Manhattan on Monday evening, they exchanged small talk and drank wine. “It was white,” she said. “I didn’t get to choose and I prefer red, but it was white wine.”
The story went viral, as the outlet knew it would. Now these narrative excesses are being untangled, and used as a rope with which to hang the source’s credibility.
The site also chose to publish Grace’s sexual encounter with Ansari in explicit detail — primarily using quotes from the source. Her language is colourful. Her descriptions of the sex acts she’s describing are not dispassionate or legalistic. This choice, too, has harmed the source. Writing in The Atlantic, Caitlin Flanagan says “what she and the writer who told her story created was 3,000 words of revenge porn. The clinical detail in which the story is told is intended not to validate her account as much as it is to hurt and humiliate Ansari.”
There are other slip-ups from Babe too. In the initial piece, a caption contradicted some of the reporting:
Later, the error was corrected, but the site has not made an explicit note of the change.
The story was published without a content warning, prompting others to offer one in the website’s place.
These failures in judgement speak to a publication that was ill-equipped to handle the story it sought out. At this delicate juncture, sexual misconduct allegations against powerful men must be treated with expertise and precision, lest the slow draining of pus we’re currently experiencing be dismissed as nothing more than tawdry gossip, a project not worth undertaking. The more outlets that bungle high-profile sexual assault reporting, the more likely the topic is to be shuffled back out of the limelight.
Unfortunately, the stench of trash carries — wafting over more accurate, thickly sourced reports. It turns people off. Imprecise coverage does everyone a disservice — from those engaged in armchair conversations, to those central to the story.
Babe’s account is so opaque, it’s not clear if or when Ansari committed a crime. If the piece’s intention was primarily to expose hypocrisy — to force Ansari to admit he’s an ally by day and a fuckboi by night — then couching the piece in language that implies that a criminal offence has taken place does a disservice to Ansari. Ansari has stated, “It was true that everything did seem okay to me, so when I heard that it was not the case for her, I was surprised and concerned. I took her words to heart and responded privately after taking the time to process what she had said.”
Conversations around sexual callousness and entitlement should happen — but they should not be presented as breaking news of the same ilk as Weinstein, Spacey or Glenn Thrush. The writer’s use of the hashtags #TimesUp and #MeToo when she first presented her piece to the world suggested she was seeking a scoop on that level.
If the writer genuinely believed Grace to be the victim of sexual misconduct, then the disservice to her source is even greater. Babe proudly declares it’s for “girls who don’t give a fuck”. But sexual misconduct, and its reporting, requires serious fucks be given. Otherwise the victims end up retraumatised and everyone gets sued.
If Babe genuinely cared about their source, they would have used their industry connections to get Grace in front of a reporter at a credible, mainstream media organisation. A more experienced journalist would not just have checked the facts of whether Grace met Ansari at all (the bare minimum, which Babe did), she would have handled the facts of the encounter itself with far greater delicacy, and perhaps initial, protective scepticism. She would have pushed for clarity. She would have done more groundwork. Perhaps she would have discovered Grace’s experience was one incident in a broader pattern of behaviour. Or perhaps she would have advised that, unpleasant as what transpired was, the consequences of going public were likely to be compounding, not cathartic.
If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, domestic or family violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000.