A letter to the media about Brock Turner
How I felt after reading The Washington Post
Today Brock Turner was released after serving three months in Santa Clara County Main Jail.
Courtney Triplett is a sexual assault survivor and Journalism major at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She wrote this letter to the media after reading an article in The Washington Post about the case.
My name is Courtney. You do not know me and I do not know you, but this week, you made me cry. I stumbled upon an article about the Brock Turner case at my desk at work, and as I read, high above the ground in a New York City skyscraper, I felt my stomach fall out of my body, down ten stories and onto the pavement below. I am a lot of things – I am a journalism student, a public-relations intern, a fierce Harry Potter fan, an overprotective big sister. But today, your words reminded me of a painful part of my person, the part that still struggles daily as a sexual-assault survivor.
I blinked back tears as I read the final sentence of a Washington Post story on the case. When I finished, I stood, walked out of the office and barely made it to the bathroom before erupting in tears. After the flood subsided, I still couldn’t shake the feeling. The sadness, the anxiety, the fear of being blamed for what happened to me.
In this story, published after Turner was found guilty of intended rape, the reporter used positive, sympathetic words to describe him – “baby-faced,” “prodigy,” “squeaky clean,” “extraordinary,” “exalted.” He was facing a “fall from grace” and the loss of a “bright future.” The victim, however, is referred to only as “the woman” or the “intoxicated woman.” She was, the reporter writes, “so intoxicated at the time of the incident, for example, that she didn’t wake up for at least three hours afterward and had a blood-alcohol level more than triple the legal driving limit.” Her assault is described as “lurid,” and the reporter makes a point to remind us she was found partially clothed behind a trash bin.
While some readers may think these qualifiers are simple semantics, to me, a rape survivor, they are thousands of tiny knives that cut into my back; they are hands around my throat that make it hard to breathe.
I wonder if the reporter realized how he was portraying Turner – as the star of the story. It’s shocking that we live in a society where language is so often used to paint perpetrators of heinous crimes as lovable protagonists with fatal flaws. Brock Turner was the golden Olympian, with a terrible Achilles heel.
Many in the media are not guilty of this, and there has been more and more outrage about this case and its coverage. But some in the media still glamorize criminals – with attention, with adjectives, with sympathy. The reporter writes that the case gained notoriety “due to the alleged culprit: a baby-faced Stanford freshman named Brock Turner.”
I am writing as a person who, today, was overcome by the insensitivity of this reporter’s words. As a woman who picked herself up from her desk, ran down the hall and collapsed into silent tears in a dirty bathroom stall. As a woman whose deep scars were re-opened today, whose dark memories were brought back in crashing waves triggered by victim-blaming language. The pain of sexual assault can be dulled over time, but occasionally, a trigger can bring you right back to those same tiny knives in your back, and the very same hands around your throat.
I was 15 years old when a family friend pinned me to a bed, violently shoved his hand up my skirt despite my protests and ordered me to “Hold still! This won’t hurt.” It did. This continued for five years, and I was never the same.
So next time media, as sacred messengers of information with the enormous power to influence, exalt, and puncture, be more deliberate and less careless with your words. Be aware of the language with which you tell your stories, because your words have the power to stab and suffocate, but they also have the ability to inspire and empower. The word “alleged” does not belong in a story about a guilty verdict. Not ever.