Changing The News Narrative On Rape

(This post was written with my research partner, Jessica Birthisel, assistant professor of communication studies at Bridgewater State University.)

A quick internet news search for the word “rape” returns more than 8.7 million results as of this writing. Headlines frame rape as an international problem, as something to be survived and, increasingly, as a mediated crime. Specifically, rape is regularly framed as a crime facilitated by mobile communication technologies and by social media, especially when young adults are involved.

That was certainly true in what came to be called the Steubenville rape case. In August of 2012, a group of teenagers in the eastern Ohio town either raped a 16-year-old girl from across the river in West Virginia or they documented it on their cellphones and then shared posts about it on Twitter and Instagram. The digital documentation was seen by a former Steubenville resident, and crime blogger, and then re-shared by her in order to make sure people knew what had taken place that night.

Steubenville football stars Trent Richmond and Malik Hayes were charged as minors in the case and were convicted in juvenile court. They have since been released from juvenile detention, with Mays out in time to participate in the 2015 high school football season.

We studied news coverage of the Steubenville rape case, and the resultant article has been published in the journal New Media & Society, because we were interested in how reporters were framing the rape in relation to new media technologies. We found that while the convicted rapists were visible in the coverage, as was Steubenville itself and the hackers who worked to ensure justice was served in the case, the victim was rendered mute. So the story of Steubenville was framed as a cautionary tale of what happens when teenagers don’t understand the power of new media, not a tale of how rape culture and toxic masculinity collided in small town Ohio.

While working on our study of Steubenville we came across a number of similar stories. There was the story of Audrie Pott who, like the victim in the Steubenville case, was raped while unconscious at a high school party. Pott took her life in the aftermath. (Her story and that of another rape victim, Daisy Coleman, are the focus of the documentary “Audrie and Daisy.”) Retaeh Parsons was another rape victim who killed herself after her rapists and others bullied her after the assault. As in the Steubenville rape case, the assaults of both Pott and Parsons were documented with new media technologies and circulated online.

Recently, stories have highlighted how people have used livestreaming apps such as Periscope in order to digitally circulate the rape of women.

The thread tying the reporting on all of these stories together is the same thread we found in Steubenville — these new media technologies, readers are told, are to be feared. These new media technologies are creating environments where rape happens. As in Steubenville, there is little to no discussion of rape culture or toxic masculinity. There is, instead, the suggestion that if only parents or other adults talked to their children about the dangers of new media technologies, then these rapes wouldn’t happen.

This reporting feeds into rape myths that predate the social web — rape myths that suggest good girls don’t get raped or put themselves in situations where they might be raped; rape myths that suggest that stranger rape is a bigger threat to women than acquaintance rape; rape myths that suggest that a person consenting to one form of sexual interaction means she consents to all forms of sex.

These rape myths obscure the realities of rape — that most rapes happen at or near a victim’s home; that almost 75 percent of rapes are committed by a partner or some other person the victim knows; that, in the United States, an American is sexually assaulted every two minutes.

Focusing on the way new media technologies feature into rapes and sexual assault is especially problematic because it pulls attention away not only from the victim but also from the perpetrators. The focus on the reporting ends up being the way cellphones or Twitter or Instagram seemed to have caused, or facilitated, a rape or sexual assault. The stories take on a “beware the evils of technology” frame instead of a frame that engages with rape culture. So, each assault is treated as an episodic crime instead of a larger, systemic problem.

Given that, and our own research into the issue, we have some suggestions on how news media could avoid perpetuating rape myths in their reporting of sexual assault. We write these suggestions not only as academics, but also as former journalists who understand the realities of working in a busy newsroom.

Avoid needless speculation.

Too often in reporting on sexual assaults or rapes there is speculation into the mindset of the victim as well as the perpetrators. You should avoid this at all costs. It can feed into the myth that only certain types of women are raped or only certain kinds of men rape, especially if the focus of the speculation is on the mental health of victim or rapist. You want to caricaturize neither the victim nor the assailant; speculation can turn both into more of a cliche than anything else.

We know that covering sexual assault and rape is difficult, but stick to the facts to avoid perpetuating rape myths that may lead your audience to take the story less seriously than they should.

Be careful with the details you share.

Does it matter that a rape victim was drunk when she was assaulted? In the eyes of the law, no. It might make the case more difficult to prosecute, but your job is not to prosecute the case, it is to report on the facts of the case. Would you report that a mugging victim was drunk when her things were stolen? Would you report that a murder victim was drunk when she was killed? The answer is most likely no. If not in those cases, then why would you linger over the possibility a rape victim might have been, or was, drunk when she was assaulted?

Lingering over the possible drunkenness of a victim or the way she was dressed or whether she was walking alone in a dark alley all work to suggest the victim was somehow at fault for her assault. The details might be important in some reporting, but we would encourage editors and reporters to really think deeply about whether such details are always appropriate or necessary to tell a story.

Also consider how much the reader needs to know about what actually took place during the assault. Is every single detail necessary or will the sharing of certain details turn the story of a crime into a spectacle? Will the release of all details work to sensationalize the story? Just because a detail appears in a police report does not mean it needs to find its way into your story.

Avoid language which blames the victim.

This is related to the first two points, but is worth repeating. Your reporting should avoid any wording or descriptors which seem to suggest the victim of the assault was somehow at fault for her attack.

We do not do this when reporting on murder victims or victims of other sorts of assaults, we should not do this when reporting on rape victims. Among the most egregious recent examples was the reporting of the rape of a young girl in Cleveland, Texas. In that case an 11-year-old was gang raped by a group of men who lured her to a mobile home with the purpose of raping her. A now notorious New York Times story dwelled on the way the accusations were affecting the men accused of raping the girl, and seemed to suggest the girl might be at fault because she “dressed older than her age.” It seemed to imply the young girl was a kind of Jezebel who tricked the men into assaulting her.

It bears repeating: The victim in this case was 11 years old. If that is the way one of the most powerful newspapers in the world frames a child rape victim, how do you think other victims are framed?

We are not arguing that you need to overcorrect and be overly solicitous to rape victims in your reporting, but we are suggesting that you not engage in reporting that re-victimizes the individual. We also recognize that this type of framing rarely happens purposefully, we do not think reporters are seeking to frame rape victims in a way that blames them for their assault. But, journalists are products of the cultures in which they live — if rape myths and rape culture are normalized or not recognized then they may be perpetuated in reporting unthinkingly.

Among the mandates set down in the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics is to minimize harm. Blaming rape victims for their assaults in news reporting certainly fails to live up to that mandate.

Be careful in your characterization of alleged perpetrators.

CNN’s Poppy Harlow came under fire for the way she described Trent Richmond and Malik Hayes when the verdict in the Steubenville rape case was handed down. In a live report, she described how difficult it was for these once bright stars to have their lives turned upside down by the conviction. Many felt her reporting was overly sympathetic to the rapists. (Although, as has been pointed out, Harlow did discuss at length how the rape had also impacted the life of the victim in other reporting that day.)

The job of reporters is to tell as well-rounded and as contextualized story as possible. When it comes to stories of rape, reporting on who the alleged rapists are is important to the story; however, journalists have to be careful not to contribute to a larger cultural narrative that sometimes paints alleged rapists, particularly those who are young, as people who made a regrettable mistake instead of people who knowingly committed a crime. Nor should reporters wax poetic about the way their committing the crime has impacted their lives.

It’s important to remember the rapists are not the victims here, no matter how compelling their life stories might seem.

Avoid treating technology as an independent actor.

Among the most troubling findings of our research is the fact that many news stories seemed to want to shift the blame in the Steubenville rape case onto the technology used to document the assault. It seemed to suggest that if the young people had better understood the power of technology, the rape might never have happened. Reporting in other cases, such as that of Audrie Pott and Retaeh Parsons, also seemed to suggest there was some power in new media that seemed to cause young people to victimize others.

Pointing the finger at new media technologies, blaming Instagram or smartphones for the behavior of rapists, ignores the way our culture has normalized violence against women; the way that a ‘boys will be boy’ framing tends to attach itself to stories about the violent actions of young men.

Technology can do nothing on its own. It is not sentient. Every video or picture; every tweet or Periscope livestream is created through the conscious act of a human being.

Investigate in your reporting what lead to that decision, but do not make the mistake of giving a life to the technology it does not possess. Do not lose sight of the human being who clicked send on a social media message or who chose to take a photograph of a rape instead of stopping it.

Don’t be afraid to dig deep.

Much of the reporting on sexual assault in news media takes an episodic approach — this means it focuses on individual crimes while rarely engaging with the larger cultural or social beliefs that might help explain an action.

News stories about the Steubenville rape case often discussed, at length, the beloved nature of the high school football team. They belabored points about how the down-on-its-luck town seemed to almost worship the local football players. These stories, while playing up stereotypes about small town America, seemed to be hinting at the concept of toxic and hegemonic masculinity without ever naming it.

Don’t be afraid to name things. Don’t be afraid to investigate the systems of power — both cultural and institutional — that perpetuate rape culture.

Investigative journalism outlet ProPublica garnered praise in 2015, and won major awards, for its story exploring the way the legal system itself can undermine rape cases. Not every outlet has the resources or time to pursue the kind of depth reporting ProPublica is known for, but what even small outlets can do is take some time to dig into rape statistics, both local and national, to give their reporting context.

All news outlets can investigate the kinds of charges perpetrators generally face and what sorts of sentences they receive when convicted. They can uncover whether there are trends in the reporting of sexual assaults and in their prosecution. They can, essence, find other ways of making their audiences see how the one particular crime that’s spurred the reporting may fit into a much broader social picture.

It’s been said that one of the functions of news media in a democracy is to hold a mirror up to society, so that it can see its reflection, “warts and all.” Sexual assault and rape are difficult stories to cover. They are stories that audiences are uncomfortable to read or hear about, but they are stories that must be told. They must be told responsibly. They must be told in a way that contextualizes them and forces communities to confront ugly realities about the way men and women are raised to think about rape and sexual assault.

Journalists risk not living up their mandate to minimize harm if they do otherwise.

CONVERSATIONS