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Coalitions often struggle with strategies to inform and approach media outlets in their states and territories. Confronted with the daunting task of undoing a rape culture, we may shy away from tacking the giant media machine in lieu of more approachable and seemingly natural allies. The Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault took a proactive approach to shape the message in their state, building more relationships and fostering more opportunities than expected. Here they found a natural ally and bigger venue for the voices of sexual violence survivors.

The RSP asked MECASA’s Cara Courchesne to share with us more about this paradigm shift in their coalition work.

RSP: How have you built relationships with media outlets in your state?

Cara: It started slowly and really had a snowball effect. We had always wanted to build relationships because the way the media reports on sexual violence is so important to how we as a culture talk about violence and victims. Media relationships have implications for quality sexual violence prevention and response, and so we decided it would be part of my job to make that a priority.

A lot of our success can be traced back to a meeting we had with the then-Editorial Page Editor at the Bangor Daily News. We were concerned with the way the BDN was reporting on a particularly high profile child sexual abuse case. We met with the editorial page editor, discussed our concerns, and started to build a relationship where we were available to them for comments, for background information on articles, and just to talk about ideas for articles and series.

Then they approached us about a larger project where the BDN’s leadership wanted to focus on solutions to issues facing Maine, and as part of their focus, they decided to focus on domestic and sexual violence. With the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence (MCEDV), we developed a proposal about what we thought their project should entail, and it began with talking about how they report on domestic and sexual violence. Together with MCEDV, we developed a training on how to better report on domestic and sexual violence and trained all 80 members of the BDN staff whose job related to content production. The training included some DV/SV 101, some preferred language (instead of using the word “intercourse” to describe sexual assault, saying “sexual assault”), and some skills building around how to write and edit stories about domestic and sexual violence.

From there, we presented the same training at the Maine Press Association’s annual conference and after that, several different news outlets approached us to provide the training for their staff. Through those trainings, I think we became real people, so to speak. Reporters and editors were able to associate a face with a name and an email address. We found that more editors and reporters knew that we were available (and nice and eager to chat!) to talk through ideas or to talk through how to word a difficult issue.

RSP: Tell us about the work MECASA has been doing with the Bangor Daily News.

Cara: We’re really lucky to have such a great partner in the Bangor Daily News. Our work with them really launched the work we’ve done with other media partners in the state. During Sexual Assault Awareness Month in April 2013, we did 30 op-eds in 30 days, which involved a lot of our statewide partners and looked at the issue of sexual violence from a variety of perspectives. The BDN followed that up with Proof, which is an amazing multimedia presentation focusing on victims of sexual violence and the systems that are in place to support them. We have an ongoing blog platform which allows us to really put prevention messaging front and center, and allows us to respond to big issues related to sexual violence, such as the UVA/Rolling Stone debacle. The platform provides access to an audience we would never otherwise have access to.

Reporters and editors at the BDN have also worked with us as a statewide resource on issues related to sexual violence, especially human trafficking and child sexual abuse. We provide a lot of background information to reporters and editors on those issues, which helps to inform their reporting and helps get the message out about broader policy issues.

RSP: What advice would you give to other state coalitions who want to do intensive media work?

Cara: I’d say that there are several things that other coalitions can do to engage in media work, and a lot of it requires just a slight shift in perspective:

  • Meet members of the media where they are. Members of the media don’t think about how to talk about sexual violence all day – they just do it (and sometimes, it’s not done in a way we’d like to see). The media cover a huge range of issues and most reporters don’t realize that when they call a reported sexual assault “alleged intercourse,” they’re helping perpetuate cultural stigmas we’re actively working against. They’re just trying to make sure Grandma doesn’t choke on her cornflakes while she’s reading the morning news. Supporting them in their effort to be more neutral about their reporting starts with realizing they didn’t write the story with malicious intent. Like everyone else, they are susceptible to all of the cultural issues at play when we talk about sexual violence.
  • Think about where they’re coming from. Given our 24 hour news cycle, reporters and editors are pushed to get as much information as they can and get the story out. Sometimes, this results in less attention to language than we’d like. The media doesn’t report on sexual violence with a lens similar to ours – their job isn’t to believe or not believe survivors, it’s to report on criminal justice stories. They have to be neutral; the key is to help them understand that you’re not asking them to become a victim advocate – you’re asking them to be more neutral. Helping them understand the difference is crucial.
  • What’s in it for them? There are ways you can demonstrate to members of the media tangible outcomes for their efforts. Many reporters and editors are unsure of where to find a good subject matter expert, or what hotline to include. By providing this information for them at the outset, and by continuing to provide them information when they ask, you are demonstrating your utility to their news organization. Also, by pointing out more neutral language for them to use, chances are, you’re helping them solve language issues they struggle with fairly often.
  • Realize you can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometimes, you just might find you get what you need! Members of the media come from an entirely different place than we do. You’re going to have different opinions about specific phrases and what is appropriate for a reporter to write about and what isn’t. Having thoughtful conversations may help sway a reporter, and it may help you understand what is happening with a specific story. You may not reach a common understanding, but you’re building the relationship needed to get there.
  • Praise what they get right. Like most people, reporters and editors respond well to praise. It’s important for us to note what good reporting looks like so we can provide examples for other reporters and editors. When we see great work on sexual violence reporting, let’s say so! 

RSP: What are some “lessons learned” that you feel would benefit other coalitions?

Cara: When I first started this work, I had this idea that it was “them against us.” And in some cases, where there are reporters pretty set in their ways, it can feel that way. However, a vast majority of reporters are just regular people doing trying to do their best. We aren’t always going to agree, but it really isn’t useful to approach them from a “them against us” perspective. Instead, I’ve really tried to focus on what resources I can provide for them, how I can help further their work and understanding, and what kind of support I can give.

Also – picking up the phone is key. It’s easy to send an email about something a reporter didn’t do correctly, and sometimes without meaning to, that can come across as having a tone. If you call, you’re more likely to have a meaningful conversation about the issue at hand.

RSP: What is next for MECASA in your media work?

Cara: We’ve done a great job engaging with newspapers in Maine. We’d love to explore more options related to other types of media, such as TV and radio. We’ve had some preliminary conversations with Maine TV and radio folks, but need to do more work in those areas. We also plan to develop a media packet to address how the media reports on human trafficking and hope to see our partnerships expand through that process.

Additionally, we’re happy to help other coalitions answer questions they may have in their work with the media – please let us know if we can help!

Cara Courchesne is the (former) Communications Director at the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault.