A Washington Post Reporter Revealed She’d Been Sexually Assaulted. Then, The Paper Banned Her From Covering Sexual Abuse.
Update: The Washington Post reportedly rescinded its limitations on what reporter Felicia Sonmez can cover. “Following a newsroom discussion two weeks ago, editors began re-evaluating limitations on the scope of Felicia’s work as a breaking-news reporter. They have concluded such limitations are unnecessary,” Kristine Coratti Kelly, Chief Communications Officer at the Post, told Jezebel.
Sonmez tweeted in response to the news, "This is good news, but it’s unfortunate that it had to come at such a high emotional toll, and after my distress was dismissed for years. I’m taking time to rest and process. Thank you for your support."
This story was originally published on March 29, 2021, at 1:15 p.m.
For survivors of sexual assault, it's difficult if not impossible to be plugged into the news and not come across a triggering story regarding gender-based violence. This is equally true for those working inside the newsroom, tasked with covering such stories. But it is their job and one that those of us who have both experienced and covered sexual assault, harassment, or rape take seriously.
This is why The Washington Post's decision to bar Felicia Sonmez, a national political reporter, from covering sexual assault or harassment is so troubling. It's particularly appalling as it comes at a time when The Washington Post is simultaneously being applauded for defending White House reporter Seung Min Kim from racist and sexist online attacks.
"The racist and sexist attacks have been vicious — and typical. She and other minority women endure vile, baseless tracks on a daily basis, no matter what story they are working on or tweeting about," Steven Ginsberg, The Post's national editor, said in a recent statement about harassment toward Seung Min Kim. "The attacks on her journalistic credibility were wildly misguided and a bad-faith effort at intimidation."
But that level of support and trust do not seem to have been extended to Sonmez. After the death of Kobe Bryant, Sonmez was briefly suspended for tweeting out that Bryant had been accused of raping a woman. Sonmez was eventually reinstated, but only after more than 300 of her colleagues signed a letter in her support, urging The Post to rescind the suspension and provide Sonmez with protection following a slew of death threats in the wake of her viral tweet.
Now, more than a year later, reports have surfaced that Sonmez has been barred from covering sexual assault and harassment stories due to her past experience as a sexual assault survivor. According to a recent report from Politico, the ban came "around the time that sexual misconduct allegations surfaced against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh" and has since included stories surrounding the recent allegations levied against New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and news that Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) is also a survivor of sexual assault. Even as recently as last Monday, Sonmez was reportedly asked to take herself off a story regarding allegations of sexual assault and blackmail against former Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens.
"They continue to prevent me from fully doing my job, by barring me from covering sexual assault — an action so harmful that I haven't been able to work for much of the past two weeks," Sonmez tweeted on Friday. "[I] am taking sick leave next week and have experienced a recurrence of the same debilitating symptoms that I had when I came forward about my assault 3 years ago."
Refinery29 reached out to both The Washington Post and Sonmez for comment. Sonmez declined to comment and The Post did not respond back by the time of publication.
This is hardly the first time a newsroom or publication has considered those with certain experiences, backgrounds, or ethnicities to be fundamentally unqualified to cover a story. In the aftermath of the mass shooting in Atlanta on March 16 that left eight dead, including six Asian American women, a question surfaced as to whether or not Asian reporters were "too biased" to cover it. Alexis Johnson, a reporter at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, says she was banned from covering Black Lives Matter protests for a perceived "bias."
But rarely are these same bias concerns extended to white people when covering white supremacy, mass shootings carried out by white domestic terrorists, or any other story that centers the lived experiences of white people. To argue that a person's lived experiences — especially if they are traumatic or not rooted in white patriarchy — somehow diminish their capacity to cover a story adequately and with nuance is to argue that you have to be a white, cis, male reporter in order to be a good reporter.
According to survivor activists, severely limiting the job of a reporter because they have experienced sexual assault further harms not only that reporter but survivors as a whole.
"I am grateful to see The Washington Post supporting Seung Min Kim. I hope this pattern continues and other outlets do the same for staffers who share their stories," Alison Turkos, multiple rape survivor, activist, and writer, tells Refinery29. "However, The Washington Post must name and repair the harm they caused Felicia Sonmez. We cannot value one survivor story over another. We must lift up and value all survivor experiences. The world cannot value survivor-victim silence over our safety."
When one in five women and one in 71 men experience an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime, chances are high that every newsroom in this country has women — and men — who identify as either victims or survivors. To hold the trauma inflicted upon them by others against them does not just stifle them professionally, but continues to allow reporting of sexual assault to de-center the victim and perpetuate a culture of silence, shame, and stigma. Furthermore, it stops survivors from being able to do what many of us couldn't or chose not to do for ourselves: help bring stories of gender-based violence out from the shadows and into the light of day.