A Music Writer’s Guide to Reporting Sexual Misconduct Stories — Fearlessly
Michael Gira, leader of experimental rock band Swans, is the latest in a string of public figures to be accused of sexual assault or harassment. The number of folks facing similar allegations are beginning to pile up, including Kesha’s producer, Dr. Luke; ex-Life or Death PR leader Heathcliff Berru; Runaways producer Kim Fowley; comedian and television star Bill Cosby and R&B star R. Kelly. While allegations against some big-name entertainers have been covered in the mainstream press, coverage of similar claims against lesser-known men has been left to the smaller presses — and often to music writers who have little, if any, familiarity with crime reporting.
Until recently, there wasn’t much call for music writers to sharpen these particular skills. For the most part, victims of sexual assault or harassment in the music world kept quiet. Now that their stories are beginning to come out, writers accustomed to turning out reviews and features might be reluctant to tackle such claims because they fear making mistakes. But those fears can prevent important information from getting out — and can keep long-silent voices from being heard.
The fact is, writing these kinds of stories isn’t all that difficult. The main thing to keep in mind that until a person admits that he committed a crime against someone, either in court or on his own — or he’s convicted by a court of law — you have to use the word “alleged” or “allegedly.” Kesha alleges that Dr. Luke drugged and sexually assaulted her. Larkin Grimm alleges that Michael Gira raped her while she was unconscious. Journalists don’t use this word to suggest that such claims are false, but rather to protect themselves from being sued for libel. As long as you’re consistent about using variations of the word “allegation,” “claim” or you attribute the accusations to the person making them, you’re pretty safe.
Also, to make a successful case for libel or defamation, statements about a person have to be “demonstrably and objectively false.” (They also have to be seen or heard by a public third party, which is pretty much true of anything that winds up online or in print. The statements also need to have harmed the subject’s reputation or income in a quantifiable way, and they can’t be protected as free speech, such as witness testimony.) So if someone writes that Bill Cosby allegedly drugged and raped someone, he’d have to go to court and prove that he didn’t do those things in order to win a libel or defamation case. That’s a pretty high bar.
When someone comes forward with a story of sexual misconduct involving a public figure and you’re writing about it, make sure to ask the accused party to comment. They may refuse to say anything, deny any wrongdoing or attempt to discredit their accuser; that’s fine. It’s not up to you to figure out who’s telling the truth. But it’s only fair to give that person an opportunity to respond to these kinds of claims.
If a sexual incident has led either side to sue the other, get ahold of the complaint and any other key court documents. In general, these files are considered public and you have a right to see them. Many courts charge fees for access; you can get around this by asking the lawyers involved in the suit to send you copies. If they hesitate, remind them of your right as a member of the public to see them. One big advantage to having copies of the court filings is that if you quote from them, while you still need to throw in the “allegedly”s and make sure you attribute information to the people involved, you’re not on the hook for libel when you use information directly from the papers.
Sometimes, things get complicated. Kesha’s battle with Dr. Luke involves a lawsuit she filed, accusing him of assault, and one he filed, including accusing her of defamation and of violating her recording contract with him. (It’s in that last one that she asked for an injunction that would allow her to record new music without Dr. Luke’s involvement; the judge said no.) In these situations, ask the lawyers to walk you through the basics of the case. They generally understand that lay folks may not understand all the subtleties of a legal proceeding, and they want what’s written about their cases to be accurate.
Lastly, do your best to keep your feelings out of it. Music and entertainment writers often get attached to their subjects and are inclined to write more fondly about people they admire. Our culture puts celebrities on pedestals and treats them differently, and it can be emotionally difficult to write something so negative about them. Also, with a new accusation, it’s more important that the basic information gets out there first. The “takes” and think pieces can come later.
For many reasons, writing about sexual abuse claims can feel like wading into very murky waters. It’s understandable that writers who are are unfamiliar with these kinds of stories are tempted to shy away. But it’s important to approach them the same way you’d approach writing about a random dude who gets arrested for rape. Stick to what’s being said. Make sure you’re clear that accusatory statements are allegations and attribute them to the people making them. Let everyone have a chance to respond. Get as much information and documentation as you can. Once you have all that, the words will fall into place.