Before I discuss news coverage of a 10-year-old rape victim whose story became a political football, there are a few things I want you to consider:
Women and girls who become pregnant as a result of a rape don’t automatically have access to an abortion in Ohio and other states that are declining to include rape exceptions in their anti-abortion legislation.
The general counsel for the National Right to Life — and author of model anti-abortion legislation being used nationwide — says even 10-year-old rape victims should carry their pregnancies to term if their lives aren’t in danger because “we don’t think we should devalue the life of the baby because of the sins of the father.”
Because of vaguely-worded laws, it’s not at all clear when a woman in Ohio (or other states) will have a right to an abortion even when anti-abortion laws include language stating that abortions are legal in cases of medical emergencies that imperil the life of the pregnant person or could “lead to a serious risk of the substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function of the pregnant woman.”
Hospitals in Texas have begun denying necessary care to patients suffering pregnancy-related complications for fear of overstepping that state’s anti-abortion law.
About 70 percent of rapes and attempted rapes are NOT reported to police, and only an estimated 0.7 percent end in a felony conviction.
If you are reporting on or fact-checking a case involving a 10-year-old who became pregnant after being raped and don’t know that background or aren’t committed to making your audience aware of it, you are likely going to cause confusion even if your goal is clarity. That’s what I saw happen in this case, including the fact-checks that failed to elucidate the situation. To be frank, as someone who spent most of his career at smaller outlets, a lot of it read like journalists at national publications trying to teach the journalists at smaller outlets who broke the story how to do real journalism, as though those journalists hadn’t thought through the verification process or understood the ethical concerns at play.
The piece by The Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler stood out. He did a “spot check” of child services agencies in Ohio and wrote that “none of the officials we reached were aware of such a case in their areas.” The impression was clear, that he was doing something local journalists in Ohio hadn’t. It got worse in an update to his column with news of an arrest in Franklin County. Officials there had been made aware of the rape several days before Kessler published his piece. Kessler did not originally tell readers he had simply not heard back from some agencies — like the one in Franklin — implying his due diligence was complete. (A Wall Street Journal editorial called the story of the 10-year-old rape victim “fanciful” and “unlikely” before appending an editor’s note to the top that acknowledged the arrest of a man in Ohio for raping a 10-year-old who traveled to Indiana for an abortion.)
Instead of asking whether he published a piece he should not have, he ended his update this way: “This is an interesting example of the limitations that journalists face in corroborating this type of story without evidence confirmed by law enforcement. Should Bernard have disclosed the case before the police charged a suspect? Should the IndyStar have published her account without a second source? Should other news organizations have repeated the story without doing their own reporting? Those are questions beyond the purview of the Fact Checker, but worthwhile for readers and media pundits to consider.”
That fact-check was titled “A one-source story about a 10-year-old and an abortion goes viral.”
Following up on high-profile stories makes sense. Such efforts have led to important corrections in the past, including the explosive Rolling Stone story about a gang rape at the University of Virginia that Washington Post journalists who didn’t just repeat the original reporting determined it to be a hoax. The instinct to dig for more sources is a sound journalistic one. However, when you investigate, find nothing new but decide to publish anyway, you may wind up disparaging the original reporting and those who gathered it. In this case, that also meant fueling fevered conspiracy theories by abortion opponents. It would have been better to just say “we could not independently verify this report” — or not publish anything at all until you could either verify or disprove.
But there’s something deeper at play that’s harder to grapple with: how to report on rape and abortion cases. An industrywide consensus has formed in recent years about how to tackle unreported sexual assault cases. We search for any available paper trail, including medical, employment, contractual, police, and other legal documents. We are more likely to publish when we can supplement those findings with contemporaneous accounts from loved ones or therapists or other counselors the victim confided in shortly after the alleged attack. We desperately want independent verification, particularly if we are going to name the accused.
That process is sound. But it could also mean we won’t give voice to victims who can’t provide a paper trail and didn’t tell anyone about the attack at the time. We can place the bar so high that we raise doubts about the rape of a 10-year-old that comes directly from the doctor who treated her, even when that doctor is named and is fully on the record. Because that doctor is only one source, we can reduce her to just being an “activist” in the abortion wars.
I’ve spent several years investigating the child protective services arm of the South Carolina Department of Social Service and later served as guardian ad litem, appointed by the court to watch over kids living in horrific conditions. Some of those kids were suffering from homelessness or were subject to parents and guardians with records of drug and child abuse, as well as sexual crimes. It was my job to speak in court for those kids and work with social services officials to determine if they needed to be removed from their homes or if other measures could be put in place to keep them with their families safely.
That made me a professional journalist and mandated reporter, required by law to report any suspected abuse within 48 hours. But I also know that even if I report such things, it doesn’t mean those reports will ever become public. There are things I’ve seen in Family Court and Family Court documents I have not put under my byline and likely never will — even though I know they happened. Medical privacy laws are in play, especially when the cases involve minors. Freedom of Information Act queries don’t always matter because some cases are far too sensitive and privacy laws are prioritized. Judges are often reluctant to make such records publicly available. As journalists, we often have to rely upon well-placed sources to access such documents, which often come with a high level of anonymity, making it difficult for others to verify the original report.
This experience informs the way I think about reporting on sexual assault. Those who unnecessarily raised suspicions about the existence of the 10-year-old Ohio girl likely would have kept doing so had the alleged rapist been a 14-year-old boy rather than a reportedly 27-year-old man. In such a case — which is not as rare as we would like it to be — it would have been even harder to get a second source, especially through official medical or police documents. It would have involved two minors, triggering the strictest privacy laws in most jurisdictions. Maybe there would have been no arraignment of an alleged rapist in open court to report on and satisfy those who derisively called the original report a “one-source story.”
In a post-Roe world, we should expect more such cases to arise, particularly as more states either forego rape or life-of-the-mother exceptions in their anti-abortion laws or make them so vague as to be nearly meaningless. We already understand the importance of hunting for multiple-independent sources, a sound journalistic practice. What about the times such a standard makes it nearly impossible to report important stories? Verification must remain a gold standard. But we must never forget that an unreported rape is just as real as those that have been reported.