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Word choice in Maryville assault story critical

10/14/2013 5:10 PM

01/09/2014 2:32 PM

The response to the lead story in Sunday’s print edition

has been huge over the past two days. In it, Star reporter Dugan Arnett looked at a case that’s been the talk of Maryville, Mo. for almost two years.

The short version: In Jan. 2012, two very young teen girls drank alcohol at a party. Shortly thereafter, two older, popular boys were charged with a variety of felony and misdemeanor crimes, including sexual assault and sexual exploitation of a minor. Ultimately, all the charges were dropped, and the older girl and her family were so harassed by members of the community that they moved away.

“Brave, well-reported journalism,” went one typical compliment. Almost all the voices I heard and read on social media said it was important to air this story, which certainly seems like a miscarriage of justice to many.

However, there are also critics who are very upset that the story describes what happened to the girls with terms such as “sexual encounter” or “incident,” or noted that the boys “had sex” with the girls. These critics say the words “rape” and “rapist” should have been used in all references.

"If a woman doesn't consent to sex and is then penetrated, she is raped," wrote Eliza Cussen. "I believe that reporting such as (this) greatly diminishes the suffering of rape victims and contributes to a culture in which rape is excused."

I am extremely sensitive to readers’ thoughts on language surrounding these sorts of topics. And I can scarcely think of one where those subjective calls are more applicable.

However, there’s a clear journalistic principle here: The word “rape” has a discrete legal meaning. The fact of the matter is that all charges were dropped and the boys were not convicted of anything.

There’s a close parallel with the words “murder” and “homicide.” The Associated Press stylebook counsels: “A

homicide

should not be described as murder unless a person has been convicted of that charge.”

Again, I want to make it crystal clear that I don’t think the concerns about the girls’ well being or the boys’ lack of legal punishment are in any way invalid. But there is a straightforward and journalistically significant reason for the story to avoid describing the alleged assault as “rape.”

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