The weight of words

Finding the right language to use while covering a rape trial takes a lot of time and consideration.

Since the beginning of Dominic Jones’ trial on March 31 the front page of this newspaper has had updates almost every day.

Why? Because the news staff found it important for readers to be informed about the public proceedings that involve a classmate and athlete.

It goes without saying: sexual assault can be perhaps the most humiliating, degrading experience possible. Perhaps this is one reason why they’re underreported.

At the University, about 66 percent of victims don’t report sexual assaults, according to a 2007 Boynton Personal Safety and Financial Health survey.

Throughout the course of the trial, the editors and reporters frequently gathered to discuss how to cover it and even how to say what exactly happened that night one year ago.

The details are graphic – from witness testimony to the prosecutor’s arguments to the cell phone footage.

The Pioneer Press included an editor’s note to warn readers: “This story includes some graphic material. We are including these details because we believe they are essential to understanding the arguments for guilt or innocence in the criminal case.”

The Minnesota Daily editors and reporters agreed. The verdict hung by those details and, in one form or another, those details should be relayed to readers.

We also struggled with another issue: How to say the three other players allegedly had sex with the woman earlier that night. This information wasn’t allowed in the trial, but it’s what Jones’ attorney Earl Gray may use to appeal.

Does saying that, according to the complaint, the woman and the other players “had sex” imply consent?

We had to balance the two sides. The woman’s identity is protected by a rape shield law. The other football players’ names were printed or spoken in every local media outlet. They were never charged and are presumed innocent until proven guilty.

One element of our code of ethics is to minimize harm. To imply that the other men did something illegal that night, without ever having been charged, could cause harm.

In the end, our wording wasn’t all that different from other sources.

From the Star Tribune: “ÖDistrict Judge Marilyn Rosenbaum excluded from testimony evidence that the woman had sex with three of Jones’ friends earlier in the evening.”

From KSTP: “Jones and the three other players took turns having sex with her, the complaint alleges.”

On Tuesday, the Daily printed: “The woman, according to the criminal complaint, had sex with three other former Gophers football players before Jones arrived that night. They were initially accused of raping her, but were never charged with a crime.”