Coulda, Shoulda, Woulda: Victim blaming in media coverage of Lara Logan
By Emily Shelton
Laura Logan is a CBS journalist who was reporting on the ground in Egypt to tell the story of the revolution there when she was brutally attacked and raped by a mob of men in Tahrir Square.
There has been an outpouring of support for Lara and expressions of disgust over the heinous act on the twitter-sphere. A few of Lara’s fellow journalist colleagues made cavalier comments that trivialized the vicious attack (see articles here, here and here) and as a result have rightfully become a lightning rod of our collective anger about the situation.
Their obnoxious comments have certainly been disturbing, but a more pervasive problematic undercurrent of coverage is language that details the victim’s physical appearance. Irrelevant comments about women’s physical appearance have long been used as a way to justify sexual assaults against us, and even subtle comments can unconsciously imply that the victim was somehow to blame.
Several journalists covering her attack have been unable to refrain from mentioning Logan’s striking good looks and blond hair. In describing the horrific story to a friend of mine, I found myself unthinkingly doing the same thing. What makes her physical appearance a noteworthy part of the story?
In What Not to Say About Lara Logan, Mary Elizabeth Williams hypothesizes that Logan’s “hotness” serves to provide a rationale for the attack and paves the way for victim blaming. After learning that the victim was physically attractive, the very next step is to wonder if she was attacked because of her good looks. The natural conclusion is that she ought not to have been in that situation looking the way she does. Slipping in comments about her physical appearance sends the subtle message that a female foreign correspondent should cover her hair and hide her curves on the job or else she is taking a foreseeable risk.
Recently, a Toronto police officer advised women at York University that to avoid sexual assaults, they should stop “dressing like sluts.” This is a much more flagrant comment, yet the underpinnings are the exact same. The implication is that the victim coulda, shoulda, woulda avoided the attack and therefore was partially responsible for what would inevitably happen.
Others have mistakenly blamed CBS for what happened, reasoning that they should not have sent a blond woman to Egypt during this dangerous period of instability. However, if the CBS had decided to send her on assignment there, they would be consciously deciding that women cannot equally participate in the field of journalism.
In the words of one commentator on pandagon.net, “it does a tremendous disservice to (Logan) and to all women who do valuable, important, dangerous jobs to say that they simply shouldn’t do their jobs.” Logan and other journalists who have been harmed on the job have shown equal dedication to their profession.
When we hear about a terrible crime, we often don’t understand how something like that could happen and ask why. Journalists are entrusted to explain the who, what, where, when and why, and therefore have a responsibility to word those answers carefully. Instead of reporting on irrelevant attributes of the victim which can lead to victim blaming, journalists should focus on the real reasons why rape happens. Rape is regularly and consistently used by men as a way of asserting power and dominance over women; and the victim is never to blame.