The Soapbox: Why Jezebel Was Wrong To Post Images Of A Woman Being Raped

Earlier this week, Anna North, a writer at the women’s blog Jezebel, posted an article about a video uploaded to YouTube which appeared to show, in graphic detail, a woman being gang raped. Just writing that sentence made me shudder, as the thought of someone brutally raping a woman, filming it, and then putting it on the internet for public consumption is horrifying beyond words. The video — titled, in Arabic, “Original video of foreign journalist being raped in Benghazi” — was quickly taken down, but Jezebel rightly wondered who raped this woman, who uploaded the video to the internet, and “will she ever get justice?”

To illustrate their post, North (or someone else at Jezebel) posted four somewhat pixelated screengrabs from the video in which the victim’s identity is obscured, though you can see parts of her mostly naked body. Images of the three men assaulting her are also pixelated, but Jezebel included accompanying captions describing the assault, just incase it wasn’t already abundantly clear that the video depicts a rape in progress. It should go without saying that the crime committed against this woman is sickening and deplorable; but I am also disgusted by Jezebel’s approach to reporting this story — which I will not link to, for this very reason — which is nothing short of callous and exploitative pageview bait.

The woman has already been brutalized by the men in the video and then further victimized by having the assault posted on the internet — but now a blog that is reportedly for women, which infuses a feminist perspective into almost everything they do, is further disseminating those images, that horrific attack, by posting screengrabs without the victim’s permission. For what purpose? To help find her attackers? Their faces are obscured and also, not your job, Jezebel. Yes, the victim’s identity is protected in the sense that no one else could recognize her (in theory) — but what about recognizing herself

Many of Jezebel’s readers seem to agree with me, with nearly all of the 261 (at last count) comments on the post expressing dismay and anger, demanding that the screengrabs be taken down. The hashtag #nojez is currently being used by those protesting the site on Twitter. Editor in chief Jessica Coen finally responded to the controversy yesterday — a full day after the post went live — adding the following note to the beginning of the piece:

We have since added additional pixelation to all of the images, including those of the attackers. This post is ultimately about the existence of a video, thus the images ARE the story — without them, there’s nothing. To remove them would be, in effect, to un-report the story. Which is not going to happen.

While I agree that the post isabout the existence of this horrifying video, I vehemently disagree that the story cannot be reported without showing the images and that to remove the images would “un-report” the story. If you want to behave like a journalist, you use your words, you don’t rely on images to tell the story for you.  Jezebel is not The New York Times and The New York Times, I feel safe in assuming, would never print images like these. If you desperately feel the need to illustrate proof that such a video exists, a single screengrab of one of the men in the video would suffice.

Jezebel is a blog with a dedicated following and passionate community of readers and commenters. They have done an incredible job over the years and I admire and like much of their content. As a reader, I would trust their point-of-view and reporting on a story like this; I would not ever say or think, “Pics or it didn’t happen.” I believe they know that of their readership, which is why I think the images were included and remain in the story as bait for increasing pageviews. Regular Jezebel readers may be appalled, but the potential for the story to go viral multiplies exponentially if images are included, especially because the video is no longer available. If Jezebel is the only site with pics, think of how many more links they’ll get from other sites. Traffic gold. In that sense, Coen is right; the images — specifically, Jezebel having and posting the images — are the story and without them, there’s nothing that makes their coverage “exclusive.” 

Herein lies a bigger issue that makes running a blog like Jezebel or any other blog with a particular point of view (including The Frisky) difficult at times — if you are for-profit, if you are a business, if you are owned by a larger entity (in the case of Jezebel, Gawker Media), you have a hell of a lot of people to answer to and make happy. Your readers. Advertisers. The person who sets your traffic goals each month, i.e. your boss, the person who signs your paycheck every month. And yourself. At some point, at many points, there is and will be a conflict between doing what is right and ethical and what is “good” for business. Sometimes those conflicts are fairly minor and easy to navigate. Sometimes there are compromises that can be reached. Sometimes you pick your battles and you stand your ground. You admit and apologize when you get it wrong, when the cost far exceeds the “benefits.”

This, I believe, was one of those times when Jezebel got it very, very wrong, where they’ve betrayed their core feminist values in favor of “pandering to lurid curiosity” (to quote the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics). And that is a damn shame.