Felicia Sonmez, a national reporter at the Washington Post, filed a lawsuit in July in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, regarding a policy implemented by her employer that barred her from reporting on news involving sexual assault after Sonmez had disclosed that she was a survivor herself. The policy was purported to prevent bias in reporting, but it's been applied inconsistently; notably, the Post's policy didn't ban reporters who had experienced medical emergencies from covering health care.
Instead the policy was specifically applied to an experience that is gendered and therefore seemingly rooted in the very same bias it claimed to extinguish. Now, all eyes are on Somnez's suit, the results of which could pave the way for how bias is defined in reporting going forward, especially in regards to the personal experiences and identities of marginalized journalists.
The aforementioned policy had prohibited Sonmez from covering the 2018 confirmation process of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who'd been accused of sexual assault. Earlier this year, the Post lifted the policy, but only after facing a wave of backlash when Sonmez spoke up about it in March. However, according to her legal complaint, the damage was already done.
Sonmez's lawsuit – filed against the newspaper, former Post executive editor Marty Baron, managing editors Cameron Barr and Tracy Grant, national editor Steven Ginsberg and other Post newsroom leaders – alleges she experienced "economic loss, humiliation, embarrassment, mental and emotional distress, and the deprivation of her rights to equal employment opportunities" as a result of the policy.
Sundeep Hora, a lawyer working on Sonmez's case at Alderman, Devorsetz & Hora PLLC, told Salon he hopes this suit will set a precedent, and notes that "many journalists have been barred from covering certain stories based on perceived biases, or memberships in protected classes, in this case, being the victim of a sexual offense."
Certainly, many journalists and people working in media have in some way or another faced the accusation that an aspect of their identity or lived experience somehow makes them unreliable or polarizing in their reporting. Yet Sonmez's case has inspired such strong reaction and criticism because of the blatant hypocrisies of her workplace, and its biased conceptions of what constitutes bias.
Hora claims, "There's another reporter at the Post that sent a pantless picture of his crotch to another journalist, and he's allowed to still write about #MeToo stories and misconduct cases by men, but Ms. Sonmez wasn't." He's referring to how Sonmez's legal complaint alleges a fellow Post reporter sent an unsolicited lewd photo to another journalist and was then allowed to continue reporting without restriction after being accused of sexual misconduct.
While the Daily Beast pointed to journalist Simon Denyer as the one investigated, Washington Post management determined there was no wrongdoing on his part. Denyer told Salon, "I have never sent a suggestive or otherwise improper photograph of myself to anyone."
Meanwhile, Sonmez's suit alleges that after she came forward about her assault, her editors accused her of trying to make herself the "star" of her sexual assault story, and asked why she hadn't reported it to the police. The suit also alleges Sonmez's editor Lori Montgomery questioned why Sonmez hadn't just said "no" to her alleged assailant.
"I was shocked by the level of interrogation she faced," Hora said. "I thought it was well-known if you're a victim of a sexual assault, many are not going to report it, or if they do report it, many report it months or years later."
Carrie Goldberg, a victims' rights lawyer and national leader in defending victims of sexual and gender-based violence, called the Post's policy and treatment of Sonmez "abusive," and a "scandal."
"They've demonstrated they don't want victims in the newsroom. Who in our society is most likely to be victims?" Goldberg told Salon in an email. "People of color, women, minorities, LGBTQ. So it leaves cis white men as the remaining journalists [the Post] would say are most qualified to report on abuse and sexual trauma."
Who is — and isn't — biased?
The jarring double standard of permitting a man accused of abuse to cover sexual violence news, while denying this right to someone who's experienced it, speaks to a greater issue of how "objectivity" and "bias" are often defined by powerful legacy media outlets. There is often a fundamental one-sidedness in how we define these terms, and pin the term "bias" to any identity or experience that deviates from whiteness and maleness, without considering how whiteness and maleness are identities that come with their own biases. Because these identities are treated as the default, by traditional reporting convention, they're seen as neutral and impartial.
Sonmez is by no means the only female reporter who's experienced sexual violence, even if she's one of few who's spoken up publicly. "If you removed sexual assault survivors from newsrooms, how many women would actually remain?" Goldberg said. "That's what's so naïve about WaPo's actions — they treat Ms. Sonmez as though surviving a sexual assault is rare, tainting, and that it replaces talent and competency."
Just as surviving sexual violence — not to mention nearly routine sexual harassment — isn't uncommon among female journalists, it's worth noting plenty of male reporters are and have even been outed as perpetrators of sexual misconduct, themselves. Last year alone saw the New Yorker's Jeffrey Toobin caught masturbating on a Zoom call — only to return to a contributor gig on CNN earlier this year — and before that, MSNBC's Chris Matthews was accused of sexual harassment by several women, notably after using his platform to defend sexual abusers.
Before them, Matt Lauer of NBC was one of the first powerful men in media ousted by #MeToo in 2017, accused of sexually assaulting several women in his office, after years of sexist media commentary. Yet, we see the credibility and reliability of women and victims of sexual misconduct questioned more often than we encounter this interrogation of male perpetrators in media.
A reporter whose life hasn't been affected by sexual misconduct brings biases to their coverage of these matters — just as a reporter who hasn't personally experienced the harms of systemic racism brings biases to their coverage of race. All journalists have their own perspectives, lived experiences, or "biases," because they're human beings; pretending they're not, and punishing survivors in an attempt to conceal this reality, seem more dishonest than just acknowledging this. Sonmez's lawsuit shines a light on just how harmful and dangerous this pursuit of the glossy veneer of "media objectivity" can be for marginalized journalists.
"Being emotionally closer to stories isn't a weakness"
The National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC) has a guide for reporters on covering sexual violence, including key facts and statistics on the prevalence of sexual assault, low reporting rates, how fear of blame and retaliation (including from employers like a national newspaper) stifle reporting, and how to avoid language that blames victims.
Megan Thomas, a communications specialist at NSVRC, tells Salon that Sonmez's lawsuit immediately caught her attention because of the widespread nature of sexual violence since one in five women has experienced rape or attempted rape.
"Statistically, it's very likely they're already doing this work, but might not be open about their status as survivors like [Sonmez] is, and might be discouraged from coming forward because they fear being taken off stories," Thomas said. "Being told your experience is incompatible with your career, that could be incredibly harmful."
It's important for survivors to feel comfortable and safe raising their experiences with sexual assault to supervisors or coworkers if they wish to, especially if they're assigned "a story that would be triggering or retraumatizing for them." Instead, Thomas says, "It's really important there's good communication within the newsroom, where there's an opportunity for [survivors] to say, 'Actually I don't want to take this story, due to my personal experience.' It comes back to having strong policies that are supporting employees and those who are survivors, rather than making assumptions."
If survivors of sexual assault do wish to cover stories on the issue, as Sonmez does, newsrooms should recognize the power and importance of their perspective. "Just because journalists and survivors would be closer emotionally to stories about sexual assault, that isn't necessarily a weakness for them — they could bring assets to those stories," Thomas said.
Policies like the Post's aren't just punitive toward those who have experienced sexual violence, implying that experiencing sexual harm makes one incompetent. Such restrictions could also be harmful for journalism broadly, as the profession benefits from diverse identities and experiences, and from those who understand the deep stakes of the issues they cover.
"There's someone out there fighting for you"
According to Goldberg, Sonmez's lawsuit makes a strong case pointing to the Washington Post's mistreatment of her. "Felicia Sonmez was discriminated at the Washington Post on account of her status as a sexual assault crime victim. She never chose that status," Goldberg said. "[She] was reduced to this one traumatic episode in her life which was not interfering with her ability to do her job."
Sonmez's story has been met with a wave of support from advocates and feminist thinkers, with many women following along and relating her experience to their own. Thomas notes that for survivors, "It can be very triggering to watch something like this happen on such a scale." And if it's nerve-racking for those watching, imagine being at the center of the suit.
On the professional level, Hora says he was deeply interested in Sonmez's case "to advance justice." But it wasn't just that. "From a personal standpoint, she's a very brave person, and I want to help her," he said.
Ultimately, Hora sees Sonmez's case as one with deep implications, beyond Sonmez alone. "The message it sends to journalists who are scared about their own personal experiences for fear of coverage bans, is that they shouldn't be fearful — there's someone out there fighting for them," he said. "This lawsuit tells other institutions that the law will step in if they're basing their decisions on discrimination."
[CORRECTION: A previous version of this story did not include the Post's determination of no wrongdoing by Denyer. This information has been added.]