Editor's Note

Content Warning: This piece contains content and language related to sexual violence, including sexual assault, post-traumatic stress disorder and rape. If you require immediate assistance, Salal, a national toll-free support centre that is available 24 hours a day, can be contacted at: 1-877-392-7583 or by text at 1-604-245-2425. Please use your discretion as you move through this feature and take a pause as needed.

Michelle Roy stood before a crowd of 400 people. She spoke about the culture of sexual violence on campus, as well as her own experience with harassment and aggression. Students, faculty and staff held handwritten posters in solidarity.

The signs read: My Clothes Are Not My Consent. Break The Silence. Believe Survivors.

Roy was leading a protest at Mount Allison University. She sought institutional change. On Nov. 12, 2020, people were listening.

“It felt so terrifying,” she said. “I was shaking the entire time.”

Within days of the protest, the university committed to hiring a full-time staff to support sexual violence prevention and response. They promised to launch a third-party review of the university’s resources, policies and procedures. They also initiated a sexual violence prevention working group.

Roy sat as its co-chair.

* * *

In March 2022, I wrote about Roy’s advocacy. She opened up about her experiences of sexual violence. She shared intimate details about moments she never expected to encounter at university.

When I interviewed Roy nearly two years ago, I exercised compassion and caution.

Today, I understand that I could have done more.

* * *

Reporting on sexual violence requires a degree of sensitivity that journalists do not use every day. When someone is describing one of the most traumatic moments of their lives, reporters have a duty to respond and report responsibly.

Advocates for sexual assault say that responsibility includes taking the time to ensure a source does not feel pressured to meet a journalist’s deadlines. But slowing down is foreign to most journalists. The pressure of time is overly familiar and racing to capture voices is part of the job.

Brittany Wallman, investigative reporter with the Miami Herald, spent much of her career doing just that —searching for answers as fast as she could. But when Wallman started working on Innocence Sold, a podcast series about child sex trafficking in Florida, she realized that reporting on sexual violence is nothing like reporting on city hall.

“You start to feel like you’re exploiting a person if you push too hard.”

When violence ends, trauma persists

An experience of sexual violence is not compressed to one moment in time, said Toronto-based psychotherapist Emilia Pacholec. It lingers.

Survivors can suddenly feel as if they are reliving the situation. This is a flashback.

 Some find it difficult to recall the details of what happened. This is memory distortion.

Pacholec works almost exclusively with survivors of sexual violence. She said that it is likely her clients will meet a preliminary screening for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

When an individual experiences PTSD, they can develop protective tendencies. Often, they are on guard — assessing dangerous situations and avoiding them at all costs.

“If PTSD is telling you, ‘No, don’t think about it, don’t talk about it, don’t feel it,’ and a reporter is saying, ‘Let’s talk about it,’ which is inevitably going to bring about feelings, their bodies are actually screaming at them to not do the thing that you’re asking them to do,” Pacholec said.

Journalists are not trained in psychotherapy, but they are trained to listen. While asking questions is the essence of interviewing, a lack of discretion can trigger a response in the person being interviewed.  

“If you’ve got somebody in front of you asking you a lot of questions and maybe pushing you a little bit to talk more about it, that triggers that sense of ‘I am again losing power, losing control over my story,’” Pacholec said.

Honouring agency

Sammy Caiola was formerly a gun-violence journalist at WHYY, a public broadcast radio station in Philadelphia. In 2021, Caiola worked on a podcast series that revealed what survivors face after they experience sexual violence. Her team examined what happens in police investigations and how these interactions affect a survivor’s healing process.

“When (survivors) were raped or assaulted, they didn’t have any power in that situation and when they go to law enforcement, they often feel that they don’t have any power,” she said. “As a journalist, you have to find a way to reverse those power dynamics.”

That can mean pausing, fighting against the journalistic instinct to work according to a tight deadline. It can mean taking the time to understand what one particular survivor really needs, Caiola said.

Caiola tries to make her subjects feel comfortable by asking questions about how she can support them. In this way, she respects their boundaries.

She said journalists might want to preface an interview with questions like, “‘Hey, how do you want these interviews to go, where do you want them to take place, who do you want to have with you when they happen…do you need childcare?”’

When reporters take a collaborative approach to their journalism, a victim endures less shock, she said. Providing an individual with a sense of control that was once taken away is especially meaningful — it can heal and empower.

However, she said collaboration is not just about preparing a subject before an interview. It requires being more attentive after you hit record.

Caiola said that while journalists may not understand how a survivor feels, they can observe. Asking subjects if they need a break, to take a breath and collect themselves or even to postpone the interview until a later date, goes a long way.

As a journalist, she said that working with vulnerable subjects also involves asking yourself how you show up, and how you manage the interview and its potential aftermath. “If we’re not being intentional, we can say something that really harms somebody and we have a responsibility to not do that.”

Sinking in skepticism

Journalists question the world. They are taught that truth and accuracy are pillars of their profession. But when reporters listen to survivors’ stories, which are often met with disbelief, expressing doubt about their validity can be harmful. 

Alex Stuckey, investigative reporter at the online publication, Houston Landing, said that she makes a point of telling survivors of sexual violence that she believes them. Still, verification is essential to journalism.

Stuckey was part of an investigative team from the Salt Lake Tribune that won a 2017 Pulitzer Prize for their reporting on sexual assault at Brigham Young University and Utah State University.

“You start by believing what a person is saying,” she said. “After you talk to them, you fact-check.”

The line that separates fact-checking from pushing a survivor too far, however, is thin. Obtaining police and court documentation can outline some facts. Even so, it’s rarely that simple.

In Canada, six per cent of sexual assaults were reported to the police in 2019 according to Statistics Canada. If a case is not reported, no documents will exist.

When Wallman interviewed victims of sex trafficking, she faced the challenge of verification. She had no reports or documentation to inform her storytelling. Navigating this obstacle required substantiating as much information as possible without questioning the credibility of a victim’s story.

“When you start to ask them for evidence, that is really upsetting I think,” she said.

Sometimes friends and family members speak with a victim after an incident. She said that asking for permission to talk to those people is a form of verification.


When reporting on sexual violence, the rapport between journalist and survivor is unique. Afteran interview comes to a close, their relationship continues. Circling back to survivors is critical. It does more than uphold a reporter’s commitment to accuracy.

“You’re not just calling to get the facts, you are making sure that you’ve got the person’s story right, that you captured it the way that they want to be represented,” Caiola said. “It’s not like I’m handing them the entire script, but we’re getting on the phone and I’m walking them through any part that involves them.”

When working with vulnerable sources, Caiola will call sources prior to publication to verify the information she has corroborated. This is what she referred to as a “vibe check,” a phrase she heard from another journalist at a conference.

Morrell Andrews has spoken publicly about her experience of sexual violence to journalists across Canada. When she was 18, Andrews was sexually assaulted by her driving instructor, who pled guilty to the crime.

“You’re basically trusting (journalists) to condense a very nuanced issue into a few sound bites or quotes and that is so stressful,” she said.

Speaking to the media is one thing. Sitting with uncertainty about how a story will be told is another.

“There’s a few pieces that I’m still waiting (to be published) and I’m kind of like ‘Oh my god, when are they going to come?’ I just want to see them, I want to know that everything’s okay,” Andrews said.

Following up with survivors throughout the reporting process acknowledges their vulnerability.

But reporting effectively not only requires checking in with interviewees. As a journalist, it includes checking in with yourself.

“If you’re at all a human, those interviews are going to affect you whether you want to admit it or not,” said Stuckey.

“We’re working against decades of ingrained bullshit,” she added. “If you don’t address how something makes you feel, you’re doing a disservice to yourself but also to your sources…are you really going to write the best story possible if you are crumbling on the inside, probably not.”

Alex Stuckey discusses how reporting on vulnerable subjects affects journalists today.

Reporting responsibly on sexual violence recognizes that every survivor has their own story and every journalist processes this type of reporting differently.

Every survivor deserves the space to regain their autonomy and every journalist deserves the chance to decompress.

Reporting responsibly on sexual violence takes time.

* * *

In 2022 when I interviewed Roy, I assumed that my kindness was all that I could offer. I neglected to consider that I could have asked Roy how she hoped the interview would unfold.

What worked in her past interviews? Were there details she would prefer not to discuss? I’ll never know. 

My follow up message to thank Roy back then should have included a request for another call to review the parts of my feature that referred to Roy, and to see how, with the benefit of hindsight, she was feeling about our interview. I understood her story was delicate, but I failed to recognize that I had a responsibility not only to make our conversation feel safe, but also healing.

When I interviewed Roy nearly two years ago, I exercised compassion and caution.

Today, I understand that I could have done more.

If you require support related to sexual violence, you are not alone. Please consult one of the resources below:

  1. Good2Talk: 1-833-292-3698
  2. ManTalk: 1-902-832-1593
  3. Canadian Human Trafficking Helpline: 1-833-900-1010
  4. https://novascotia.ca/coms/svs/.

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About the author

Raeesa Alibhai

Originally from Toronto, Raeesa Alibhai is in her fourth-year of the Bachelor of Journalism (Honours) Program at King's. She is fond of all forms...

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