Blog Tips: Language matters when covering assault

Often in music journalism it feels as though every step forward is immediately followed by half a step back. A rather harmless example of this would be people learning that diversity in content offerings often breeds better engagement, but then they spread themselves too thin trying to cover too much and the quality of their content begins to slide. This is a minor setback that is easy to fix, but not all things are this easy to change.

Over the last few years music journalism as a whole has increasingly taken notice of wrongdoing within the music industry as it relates to assault, unwanted advances, and related problems. The attention paid to these cases has helped make more people aware of the issues being faced in our global music community, but all too often the language used does not correctly describe the events that happened. The most recent example of this involves Molly Rankin, vocalist for the band Alvvays, who was nearly assaulted mid-performance by a male concert goer in Belgium. The man rushed the stage in the middle of a song and tried to surprise Rankin with a kiss, but she moved out of the way before he could have his way with her. You can view the incident in question below (it begins at the 3:35 mark).

No one in the music community has condoned this man’s behavior. What they have done, however, is underplayed the seriousness of his actions by using the wrong language in their story. Here are a few examples:

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So a common thread here? All these sites promote the story as a man ‘trying to kiss’ a woman he never met who does not know who he is and certainly did not ask for his affection. That is not an attempted kiss. That is an attempted assault.

Assault, more specifically sexual assault, is defined as a sexual act in which a person is coerced or physically forced to engage against their will, or non-consensual sexual touching of a person. You may not personally believe kissing count as a sexual act, but for many it does, and insisting someone kiss you against their will is an act of sexual violence.

When writers use the wrong language to cover instances of assault or other crimes they are (perhaps inadvertently) normalizing the behavior. They are downplaying the seriousness of the allegations, or in this case the actual events, with language that infers the situation has some quality of lightness. Rankin may have been able to laugh off this bizarre instance, but that is no reason to think she’s okay with the fact it happened. It’s never okay, and as journalists reporting on the events specificity is key in helping audiences understand what makes such actions inappropriate.

Women in music – or anywhere else – owe men nothing, yet again and again we read stories like this where guys take their shot because they don’t see the harm in taking a chance. As influencers on this culture it is the responsibility of every writer to take action against wrongdoing and urge their readers to do the same. 

James Shotwell

James Shotwell is the Director of Customer Engagement at Haulix and host of the company's podcast, Inside Music. He is also a public speaker known for promoting careers in the entertainment industry, as well as an entertainment journalist with over a decade of experience. His bylines include Rolling Stone, Alternative Press, Substream Magazine, Nu Sound, and Under The Gun Review, among other popular outlets.