A man holds a newspaper with a hole in it, as a woman looks out.
(Illustration by Nico Teitel)

Sexual Assault Survivors in Journalism Are Waiting for Their Reckoning

After Felicia Sonmez’s lawsuit against the Washington Post, reporters who’ve survived sexual assault are confronting their trauma and what the lawsuit means for media's future.
September 28, 2021, 1:00pm

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Alex Stuckey never planned to write about sexual assault. When she was first hired as an investigative reporter at the Salt Lake City Tribune, Stuckey had intended to cover medicine. But when she got asked to contribute to the paper’s coverage of campus sexual assault, she said yes.

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The coverage was hard-hitting and in-depth. It eventually won the paper, and Stuckey, a Pulitzer Prize. And every day, Stuckey panicked over the possibility that someone would discover that she had survived sexual assault. 

“I had so many people tell me, ‘That’s ridiculous, you’re not gonna get punished for that. That makes no sense. You’re not gonna get kicked off the project,’” Stuckey recalled. “Then Felicia went public with this, and I was like, ‘I was right to be concerned.’”

“Felicia” is Felicia Sonmez, a Washington Post reporter who, in July, sued the newspaper and a handful of its current and former top editors. Starting in 2018—amid coverage of Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court—the paper’s brass had twice blocked her from covering sexual misconduct stories, because Sonmez went public with her own claims of sexual assault. Those bans, Sonmez alleges in her lawsuit, constituted discrimination.

Although the Post’s policy toward Sonmez had been public knowledge since March (and was quickly revoked after Sonmez publicized it), the details described in the lawsuit are stunning. One editor allegedly told Sonmez that by being outspoken, Sonmez had “taken a side on the issue” of sexual assault and accused her of “trying to have it both ways.”

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After Sonmez tweeted out a request for a correction to an article involving her, the Post essentially warned Sonmez against trying to be the “‘star’ of her own sexual assault,” according to the lawsuit. Then there was the parade of powerful figures who Somnez said she had been blocked from covering: Beyond Kavanaugh, there was former presidential candidate Herman Cain, ex-New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, former North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp. Heitkamp was not even accused of sexual misconduct; she’d inappropriately identified people as sexual abuse survivors in a campaign ad. 

“I had so many people tell me, ‘That’s ridiculous, you’re not gonna get punished for that. That makes no sense. You’re not gonna get kicked off the project.’ Then Felicia went public, and I was like, ‘I was right to be concerned.’”

“Each time, the ban served as a constant reminder that she was assaulted and that her editors viewed her as being somehow ‘defective,’” Sonmez’s lawsuit states.

Details like these quickly went viral on Twitter, and Stuckey, who’s now a reporter at the Houston Chronicle, soon added her voice to the digital chorus. Reading Sonmez’s lawsuit, she tweeted, had made her burst into tears.

“Everything that happened to her at @washingtonpost is what I feared FOR YEARS would happen to me at papers if I disclosed my assault,” Stuckey wrote. “There are no two sides to this issue: Sexual assault is bad and also illegal.”

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For Stuckey, and other survivors of sexual assault who work in journalism, Sonmez’s lawsuit inspired awe. They praised her courage as a trailblazer, particularly because Sonmez is still employed by the Post and has expressed no desire to leave. But the lawsuit also bit with familiarity. Some survivors worried that coming forward would implode their careers. They have struggled with editors over how to cover sexual assault. They had imagined that they would not be believed—one of the darkest, and most justifiable, fears for any sexual violence victim.

“There are no two sides to this issue: Sexual assault is bad and also illegal.”

The lawsuit also arrives just a year after newsrooms were forced to publicly reckon with how their screaming lack of diversity shapes their coverage, and as they’re still grappling with the afterlife of an administration addicted to politicizing reality. Sonmez’s case accuses the Post of gender discrimination and unfairly believing that one, already-marginalized aspect of her identity—her status as a known survivor—poisoned her ability to do her job.

A Washington Post spokesperson told me that it had no comment on the lawsuit or its allegations, but on Friday, the Post filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit. The motion argued, among other things, that Sonmez had waited too long to sue, that she hadn’t proven that the bans had led to “significantly diminished responsibilities,” and, in any case, that the Post “based the ‘bans’ and other allegedly adverse action on Sonmez’s public advocacy, not her victim status.” 

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“To be sure, Sonmez insists her public statement was ‘not a controversial’ one and and takes offense at the notion that there are ‘two sides’ to #MeToo stories,” the motion reads. “But that simply confirms that the underlying dispute is over Sonmez’s personal role in the public discussion, not her status as a victim of assault.”

“Each time, the ban served as a constant reminder that she was assaulted and that her editors viewed her as being somehow ‘defective.’”

Sonmez’s lawsuit evokes fundamental, urgent questions about journalistic ethics, objectivity, and who gets to be considered a good reporter. And it raises a specter that has long haunted journalism: In a profession that remains dominated by white, straight, cis men, will people who are sexually assaulted—a crime that happens overwhelmingly to women—ever be considered equals? 

“The traditional stance of objectivity and appearance of a conflict of interest has always been applied selectively. I’ve never heard, for example, of a combat veteran-turned-reporter who said, ‘Oh, you’re a veteran, you can’t cover veterans’ issues,” said Bruce Shapiro, executive director at the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. “These kinds of identity fights come up again and again, and it’s always about membership in a group that’s been at the losing end of the power equation.”

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There is probably at least one sexual assault survivor in every newsroom in the U.S., because survivors are everywhere. Almost one in five women have, at some point in their life, experienced an attempted or completed rape, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 43 percent of all women in the U.S. have “experienced some form of contact sexual violence in their lifetime,” while roughly 25 percent of men said the same, a 2018 report by the agency found.

Full disclosure: I’ve been sexually assaulted. It’s a fact that I’m neither particularly quiet nor particularly open about, which means I’m still probably on the “public” side of the spectrum. Out of every 1,000 sexual assaults, just 310 are reported to police, according to statistics from RAINN, the nation’s preeminent anti–sexual assault organization. I have never reported my assault to law enforcement. It’s not like doing so would be any guarantee of peace or accountability. Of the 310 assaults that are reported, just 25 ultimately result in the perpetrator being incarcerated—to say nothing of the fact that incarceration is not necessarily the same thing as justice.

I have covered sexual assault for years and, before news of the ban restricting Sonmez broke, never even considered that my own experience might constitute an ethical conflict of interest. I’d mentioned the assault to one of my editors in 2018 as part of a conversation unrelated to work; no one at VICE News has ever told me that it could be an issue. 

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But hours after I read about the Washington Post ban, I found myself lying facedown on my couch, trying to force my body to stop vibrating with anxiety, rage, shame. My mind whirled: Would people think I couldn’t approach stories about sexual assault without bias? Had I inadvertently torpedoed my own journalism career? (Am I doing that now, by putting this in print?)

“These were editors I liked and thought they had good judgment,” she said. “Up until then.”

Alison Berg, a reporter at the Steamboat Pilot & Today in Colorado, fought similar fears as she debated coming forward as a sexual assault survivor.

“I think my first one was that I would be pulled off of any sort of sexual assault coverage, because it would seem like I was too close to the situation or there was a conflict of interest,” she recalled. “After that, I think it was: What if I get judged? The newspaper industry—and every industry, honestly—is male-dominated. And, honestly, to be perfectly frank, I was worried that, particularly, male editors would have judged me.”

A female reporter who covers crime at a legacy outlet told me that she has been more traumatized by comments from male editors than by any story she has covered. (Legacy news outlets are typically understood as the venerable institutions born before the advent of the internet. Think: the New York Times, CNN, and, yes, the Washington Post.) The reporter recalled some of the remarks she’s heard at a past job: “Why didn’t she report it to [the] police?” “That’s not sex assault. That’s just fondling.” “Since when do we take the word of a 12-year-old girl?”

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“And these were editors I liked and thought they had good judgment,” she said. “Up until then.”

This reporter asked to speak anonymously because she didn’t ask her bosses for permission to talk to me. She has never disclosed the assault to them and doesn’t plan to do so now. It took her almost a decade to speak about it, and, even now, only a handful of people know what happened.

“You hear these things from male editors all the time: ‘Why is she doing a press conference if she’s so traumatized? What evidence does she have?’ You go into your head, right? You start thinking, ‘Well, I don’t have any evidence. I was a teenager,’” the reporter said. “I really don’t think that the editors think, ‘Hey, I could be talking to someone that the exact same thing happened to.’ It never occurs to them how pervasive it is.”

She continued, “That’s what would drive me over the edge, to needing a walk around the block or taking a phone call from a close friend to calm me down. It wasn’t the subject matter itself; it was these horrible, misinformed comments of people who are still stuck in the past and don’t realize this is a serious problem and how we cover it is insane.”

Just over 60 percent of all newsroom employees are men, compared to 53 percent of all U.S. workers overall, according to a 2018 Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data. More specifically: 48 percent of all newsroom employees are non-Hispanic white men. (Overall, newsrooms are extremely white, with 77 percent of their employees identifying as non-Hispanic white.) As you ascend the professional ladder, the gender disparity calcifies. Almost 60 percent of the top editors in the United States are male, a 2020 analysis by the Reuters Institute found.

Gender and race metrics don’t capture less-visible markers of diversity of experience and perspective, such as class, sexual orientation, educational background, immigration history and status—to name just a few. But these traits are still vital to crafting an inclusive newsroom, particularly when journalism is increasingly a career available only to the comfortable and the connected. Since 2008, newsroom employment has plummeted by 26 percent, according to Pew. That’s 30,000 lost jobs. 

The question of who gets to have a job in journalism, and what that job looks like, has perhaps never been more pressing.

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“The idea of objectivity has always come from straight, white males, typically,” Berg said. “Can a white male covering other white men be objective? We would never think to ask that. But we would ask a Black person if they can cover a Black Lives Matter rally and be objective. So I do think that objectivity and white supremacy and patriarchy are in a lot of ways intertwined.”

“You hear these things from male editors all the time: ‘Why is she doing a press conference if she’s so traumatized? What evidence does she have?’”

Meredith Shiner covered politics for Washington, D.C.–based publications like Politico and Roll Call. She no longer works as a full-time reporter and, in 2018, published a piece about, in part, what she called “the moments of corrosive misogyny that have punctuated my career in journalism.” In Sonmez’s lawsuit, she saw lesions of a noxious culture of politics reporting—one that’s so obsessed with avoiding the appearance of bias and skirting political stances that it ignores moral truths.

“This idea of what objectivity is and that it’s creating equal time for both people instead of being objective to the things that we know are true—we know sexual assault is bad. That is true. There are not two sides to it,” she told me. “If you can’t say that as a newsroom, if you telegraph to the entirety of the newsroom that that’s your view, how do you as a Congress reporter file your copy to an editor calling out one side as bad?”

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For decades, (male-dominated) media has framed sexual assault as a “women’s issue,” as though men have no connection to it whatsoever. But men regularly perpetrate sexual violence. And as Marie Solis pointed out in Jezebel when news of the Washington Post policy first broke, “White male reporters are rarely asked questions whose answers could also be revealing of biases, like, ‘Have you ever been accused of assaulting anyone?’”

The man Sonmez says groped her and pressured her into sex after drinking, Jonathan Kaiman, was previously the Beijing bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times. He has said that his memory differs from Sonmez’s and that “all of the acts we engaged in were mutually consensual.” (Accused by another woman of also pressuring her into sex, Kaiman tweeted an apology and said that he didn’t mean to “pressure you into an unwanted or uncomfortable sexual encounter.”) 

Sonmez’s lawsuit also describes her learning about “a male colleague who faced sexual misconduct accusations including sending an unsolicited photo of his underwear-covered crotch to a young woman.” According to the lawsuit, Marty Baron, the then-executive editor of the Post and a defendant in the lawsuit, never banned this journalist from covering stories tied to sexual misconduct.

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“None of the reporter’s editors said his writing on the topic would present a ‘conflict of interest’ or questioned whether he was capable of objective reporting,” the lawsuit reads. “He was given a prominent position, wrote more than a dozen stories that touched on these issues, and continues to do so today.”

The Daily Beast soon reported that the journalist in question was Simon Denyer, the Post’s bureau chief for Japan and the Koreas. In response to the Beast’s request for comment from Denyer, the high-powered law firm Boies Schiller Flexner LLP sent what the Beast called a “legal letter.”

The Post declined to comment on the matter—both to the Beast and VICE News—but an internal investigation run by a Post editor had previously found that “there was no professional wrongdoing warranting Denyer’s dismissal,” as the Beast puts it. Denyer was reportedly given a warning.

In its motion to dismiss, the Post argued, “The male colleague was not similarly situated to Sonmez even by her own account, because Sonmez does not allege that he took public positions on #MeToo issues or even that his connection to such issues was publicly known.”

In early September, the Post announced that Denyer would be leaving the newspaper for a “career change,” the Daily Beast reported.

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Leadership over at CNN, meanwhile, has decided against disciplining star anchor Chris Cuomo after the Post reported that he had advised his brother, Andrew Cuomo, about how to handle the cascade of sexual misconduct allegations that eventually ousted the governor from office. CNN said in a statement that Chris Cuomo hadn’t been involved in its coverage of the allegations partly because Cuomo “could never be objective.” 

Cuomo’s apparent ethical lapse was not only excused by his employer but also smoothed out of being a lapse at all. By CNN’s logic, anyone who has a problem with Chris Cuomo’s behavior is being irrational, because who would expect a man to put his professional obligations to millions of viewers over his brother? But this isn’t just a question of sexual misconduct. Advising a governor about how to stay in power is evidence of entanglement with politics, typically verboten for reporters. 

Then, last week, veteran TV journalist Shelley Ross published a New York Times essay accusing Chris Cuomo of sexually harassing her by squeezing her butt cheek. Ross had previously served as executive producer of a show where Cuomo worked; Ross wrote that Cuomo told her, “I can do this now that you’re no longer my boss.” Asked for comment, Cuomo told the Times, “As Shelley acknowledges, our interaction was not sexual in nature. It happened 16 years ago in a public setting when she was a top executive at ABC. I apologized to her then, and I meant it.”

“Reporters who come out as survivors, like the Washington Post’s Felicia Sonmez, are treated as ‘unreliable narrators’—an extension of how rape culture treats survivors writ large—while abusive men and their enablers lose nothing.”

“The Cuomo brothers are a symptom of an industry that uses the red herring of objectivity to protect and enable abusers, while punishing women, survivors, journalists of color, and anyone else who disrupts or otherwise disturbs the narrative of power,” freelance journalist Lexi McMenamin wrote in Dame last month. “Yet, reporters who come out as survivors, like the Washington Post’s Felicia Sonmez, are treated as ‘unreliable narrators’—an extension of how rape culture treats survivors writ large—while abusive men and their enablers lose nothing.”

McMenamin told me that they, like Sonmez, had been sexually assaulted by someone who is now also a journalist. 

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“I took two years off from really trying to apply to journalism jobs, and part of the thinking there was, well, I know that this person has continuously written for the same publications I’d like to write for, so what if he’s bad-mouthed me? Or what if he’s spread that I am somehow unreliable or crazy?” said McMenamin, whose pronouns are they/she. “How loaded the idea of being unreliable or crazy is when your entire industry is predicated on the idea that you have to be reliable enough to tell the truth.”

In college, McMenamin did anti–sexual assault activism—something that, now, McMenamin fears has impacted their ability to get work as a reporter.

“It didn’t occur to me that I was going to somehow be disqualified from understanding reality on the basis of being a survivor, until it felt like it was already being implied,” she said.

In Copenhagen in August 2017, Kim Wall, a Swedish freelance reporter, boarded a local inventor’s submarine in pursuit of a story. She never returned to shore. 

By October, her remains had been found, on multiple occasions, in the waters near the city. The inventor was convicted in April 2018 of sexually assaulting Wall, killing her, and dismembering her body.

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As the Wall case unfurled, Tulika Bose was in the midst of getting her master’s degree in journalism at Columbia University. The parallels were wrenching. Bose, too, had been a freelance journalist in a foreign country—she was in Nepal, working on a documentary—when she was sexually assaulted.

“For a long time, I was just like, ‘I’m not gonna talk about it, I’m not gonna say anything.’ And then when I was at Columbia and the story about Kim Wall came out, I couldn’t not say something,” said Bose, who provided emails documenting her communications with the local U.S. embassy about the assault. “I look at her all the time and I think, ‘That could have been me.’”

She recalled a seminar at Columbia that had tried to explain how to protect yourself. The seminar, she felt, imparted a false sense of security. “It was so ridiculous and I got really angry,” she said. “I was like, ‘No, you can’t throw young kids out in the middle of a foreign country and think nothing will happen to them or don’t prepare them, because that’s not fair.’”

Here’s the acid truth: Harassment and violence are occupational hazards for journalists, particularly those who are female. In a 2018 survey of hundreds of women media workers by the International Women’s Media Foundation, 58 percent of respondents said they’d been threatened or harassed in person over the last year. Just over a quarter said they’d been physically attacked.

Out of the U.S.-based media workers, who made up roughly half of all respondents, 78 percent said that they believed their gender had contributed to their being attacked, threatened, or harassed. (I share that belief. A special shoutout to Maxine, a total stranger, who emailed me one Friday morning to let me know that I’m a “facsit (sic) cunt.”) 

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A survey of hundreds of female journalists around the world, analyzed in a UNESCO paper presented in April, found that almost three-quarters of respondents said they’d experienced online violence, such as threats of sexual violence and death.

“Increasingly, and very problematically, employers respond to the problem by policing journalists’ speech (e.g., by introducing social media policies that discourage them from engaging in public commentary on ‘controversial issues’) and victim-blaming (e.g., by suggesting a woman’s speech triggered an attack, or punishing them for the brand exposure caused by an attack),” the report concluded.

Harassment and violence are occupational hazards for journalists, particularly those who are female.

“Journalists of color, particularly women of color, in newsrooms I’ve been in, have borne the brunt of that for a long time. I think that has increased at every level—antisemitism, people doxxing. It gets worse and worse and worse,” said Christina Bellantoni, who heads the University of Southern California Annenberg’s Media Center. She formerly ran political coverage for the Los Angeles Times and served as the editor-in-chief of Roll Call. “Journalists are leaving the profession because of this. It’s just not worth it for them.”

“I do not feel that newsrooms have adequate support systems for this at all,” Bellantoni added.

Bose told me that she’s turned down work at legacy outlets because she thinks she wouldn’t be able to be public about her survivor status. Last year, while working for Mashable, she published a story about two women whose intimate photos were shared across Telegram, without their consent. She got the story, she said, because she’s open about being a sexual assault survivor; she values “radical transparency and fairness” over the pretense that journalists show up to work as blank slates.

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“I have been so honest with every editor I’ve had, to the point where, when I interviewed at Mashable, I brought it up in my interview,” said Bose, who now works for NowThis News. “I was like, ‘If you guys don’t like this about me, don’t hire me.’”

When Berg, the Colorado reporter, agreed to be named as a sexual assault survivor, she did so under some relatively rare circumstances: In 2017, a man was charged in her case with first-degree felony rape and second-degree felony forcible sexual abuse. His trial developed against a backdrop of several high-profile campus sexual assault cases in Utah, and so it drew extra media attention.

Most of the reporters covering the case, Berg said, were sensitive. But at one point, she recalled, a grueling cross-examination left her sobbing and seized by a panic attack. A TV reporter hovered outside the courtroom, wanting to ask Berg questions despite her tears.

“I was like, ‘Can you not? Clearly, I’m distressed,’” Berg said. “I think a lot of journalists just see themselves as objective robots, and I don’t think that’s what our goal should be.” 

Berg’s assailant ultimately pleaded guilty to the forcible sexual abuse charge. He was sentenced to 105 days in jail.

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Afterward, Berg said she was invited to speak at sexual assault awareness events and became an advocate at her college’s sexual assault office. “I think it’s important for other journalists to see, ‘Oh, this happened to my colleague. This happened to this person that I sit next to every day. This happens to people that I know.’ This isn’t some abstract, faraway issue that happens to women in dark alleys.”

Last spring, 22 women filed lawsuits accusing Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson of sexual misconduct, including assault. The tone of the Houston Chronicle’s initial coverage set off alarm bells for Stuckey.

In March, the Chronicle, where Stuckey now works, published a warm, sympathetic profile of Watson. It quoted unnamed friends who said things like “He’s always been a gentleman” and who “wondered if the sudden fame and fortune have taken a toll on the quarterback.” It provided minimal—if any—new facts that could help readers ascertain whether the allegations were true. (Watson has denied them.)

That same month, the story’s writer gave an interview where he called the lawsuits “a money grab” and “ambulance chasing,” and compared the women suing Watson to terrorists. He left the Chronicle shortly afterward.

“How do you explain to someone that just because a crime was committed against me doesn’t mean that I don’t believe in fair reporting and telling the truth?”

The Chronicle also published statements from 18 massage therapists in support of Watson, which had been cobbled together by Watson’s lawyer; the “story” was essentially a glorified press release. 

Stuckey had a weekend phone call with Maria Reeve, now the Chronicle’s executive editor, where, Stuckey recalled, she tried to explain why she found the Chronicle’s coverage so damaging. “It’s the weekend, you know? I don’t want to be doing this,” Stuckey said. “I get off the phone and I need a drink, because I’m trying to process all of this and all of my clearly unresolved trauma of my own.”

“In order to get my point across about some of our coverage, I felt that I needed to say, ‘I am a survivor and this is not OK,’” she continued. “That was traumatic for me, having to sit in a room with a bunch of editors and say, ‘This happened to me and I feel really bad about how we’re framing these things.’ Because I have been so public, I do feel kind of a sense of necessity to be the one in our newsroom that stands up, so that other people don’t have to. But with that comes an additional layer of, ‘Oh my God, are they listening to me? Are they not? Am I being triggered by doing this?’”

Stuckey ended up covering the Watson case herself. Her reporting uncovered several errors in the massage therapists’ statements released by Watson’s lawyer, as well as mistakes made by the lawyer who’s representing the accusers. For example, two women who are described as being “licensed” could not be found in state licensing databases. There is no correction on the original Houston Chronicle story.

Reeve told me that the Chronicle would “look at” adding a correction to the story. The newspaper published the profile of Watson because, Reeve said, “There was a thought that what people thought they knew about Watson did not match what these allegations were and so that story was an effort to look at: Who is Watson? What do we really know about him?” 

Asked if the story was appropriate to run, Reeve said that was for others to decide.

“There was no thought on our part to exclude her from coverage,” Reeve said of Stuckey. “I think her experience helped inform our coverage and made it better, because a lot of people didn’t have that perspective. A lot of people didn’t have that sensitivity. Her participation was invaluable.”

“They don’t need to be silent, because their employers are being put on notice.”

In June, Stuckey published an essay about the assault she survived. The day it went live online on the Chronicle’s website, she was fact-checking a story about Watson.

“How do you explain to someone that just because a crime was committed against me doesn’t mean that I don’t believe in fair reporting and telling the truth?” Stuckey said. “It’s OK. I dare you to tell me it’s not.”

Every reporter I spoke with said that surviving an assault had sharpened their reporting; the experience had left them more empathetic. The reporter who covers crime at a legacy outlet said she does a lot of work involving lawsuits, and she’s trying to rely less on police narratives and attorneys. She’s willing to let sexual assault survivors back out mid-interview.

“Sometimes, writing these stories makes me feel like, ‘OK, I’m giving a woman a voice,’” she said. “I don’t have a voice still, and that’s my choice. But I am giving a woman a voice who didn’t have it before. I’m telling the world about something that happens every damn day and you all just have closed your eyes and ears to it.”

Sonmez declined to speak to me for this story. But her attorney, Sundeep Hora, told me that sexual assault survivors should know: “They don’t need to be silent, because their employers are being put on notice.”

Hora declined to say whether Sonmez would consider a settlement in the case. But, he said, a just outcome to the case would have to involve some kind of acknowledgement that what happened to Sonmez was unlawful and that things need to change.

“Because that’s all you can hope for at this point. What’s done has been done,” Hora said. “But moving forward, what does it mean for others?”