9 FREE TIPS For Improving Your Rape Coverage TODAY, Mass Media!

If I never see the words "seduced," "had sex with," "affair," "forced her to have sex," and so on in a headline about a rape case again, it will be too soon.
Publish date:
March 19, 2013
rape, media, rape culture, sexual assault, pop culture

When rape cases make the media, which is rarely, because they need to have that magical combination of factors that makes them appealing to the media (winsome young white woman making the accusation, and/or high-profile athlete/public figure as the accused), the coverage is usually absolutely abysmal. Watching everyone react to the handling of the verdict and subsequent sentence in the Steubenville case, I've been struck, again, by how terrible rape coverage is.

And how periodic flare-ups of outrage don't actually address the underlying issue. Don't get me wrong, I'm as angry about CNN's awful actions this week (among other vile indignities) as everyone else, but not simply because they're gross in this particular case. I'm angry because they're par for the course; I can predict the media trajectory of pretty much every rape case because it's always the same, and it's always grossly irresponsible.

I want to see the media developing and committing to a set of ethical guidelines on how to handle the reporting of rape cases; just as the AP recently updated its entry on mental illness, it's time to see a similar discussion about how rape is handled. Because frothing up into a lather over individual incidents ignores the institutional structures behind them, and a single petition aimed at CNN does nothing to address the larger issue, which is that our media have a problem with rape.

Let's change that. I've got nine tips here for making rape coverage better that also start to explore the foundations of a set of ethical guidelines for handling rape, and I suspect many of you have some additions.

1. Rapists are not victims

This one's in honor of CNN, but they're not the only offender. Numerous media outlets cast rapists as victims when they're convicted and sentenced, particularly when they are young men or athletes. Rhetoric about ruined lives is cast about as though we're supposed to feel pity for the people who commit rape. The media need to stop doing this, full stop.

However, there's nothing wrong with discussing the fact that a rape conviction carries consequences. Responsible media coverage of verdicts should discuss the ramifications of the sentence in a way that makes it clear verdicts are intended as punishment for a harmful crime that damaged the victim far more than the penalties could ever possibly damage the rapist(s).

2. Don't out the victim...unless the victim wants to be named.

Jane Doe is Jane Doe for a reason. Rape is an exception to the usual open rule in legal cases and police reports in the United States because it is a very personal crime with highly personal and intimate consequences. The identities of rape victims should be protected, which means no identifying details, no sleuthing around to expose them, and no saying a victim's name on air.

Some victims want to be named and will actively put themselves out there, like Landen Gambill, who was threatened with expulsion because she wouldn't stop talking about her rape. But before running a victim's name, it's important to get clear, explicit consent, to make sure this will be an empowering act rather than one that brings up fresh trauma. If there's any doubt, Jane Doe she shall remain.

3. Rape is rape, not "sex."

If I never see the words "seduced," "had sex with," "affair," "forced her to have sex," and so on in a headline about a rape case again, it will be too soon. I understand that there are some legal liabilities involved in writing headlines and features, and that sometimes you can't use the word "rape" without exposing yourself to libel, or you need to be careful about the crafting of a headline. "Prominent Athlete rapes wife" might be a legal no-no, but "Joan Doe accuses husband, Prominent Athlete, of rape" clearly notes that it's an accusation.

Using euphemisms abstracts the violence of rape from the crime. It further contributes to the idea that rape is about sex when it's about power, and it pressures victims and juries alike to underplay the crime. Protecting yourself from legal liability is reasonable, but crimes should be reported accurately. You don't see murders reported as "So-and-so gently patted Jane Doe with a bat."

4. An accused's sports prowess has no bearing on guilt or innocence.

The US in particular tends to engage in a peculiar sort of hero worship when it comes to athletics, and that needs to stop. When an athlete of any profile, from homey small town footballer to major basketball player, is accused of rape, that person should be treated like any other accused. Being an athlete doesn't create an exemption from the possibility that you may have raped someone. And protecting athletes on the grounds that their reputations are more important than justice loops us back to point one above.

Treating an accused like an innocent victim totally erases the existence of the rape victim, the person who was actually harmed by the crime. In many cases, it also seems to suggest that the bigger crime was getting caught and being forced into the public eye, not raping someone.

5. No one is "asking for it."

Media reports questioning what a victim was doing or wearing, what her personal history was, where she worked, or anything else, are suggesting that the victim is responsible for the rape, as are those that linger on a victim's sexuality and gender. Any attempt to explain a rape by casting the responsibility onto the victim is horrendously inappropriate, and lends further credence to the idea that some people are "asking for it" and providing an invitation to rape. Rapists choose to rape. Period.

While it is of course advisable and desirable to humanize the victim by creating some context and giving the victim a personality and identity beyond "rape victim," this shouldn't be done in such a way that the victim appears to have done something wrong.

6. Race matters.

And probably not in the way you think. The media reporting of rape is significantly racialized, in a way that underplays the seriousness of the risks of rape for women of color and nonwhite women, and overplays the incidence of perpetrators of color and nonwhite perpetrators. This sets up a world in which people continue to believe that fragile white women are in peril from evil scary dark men.

When a victim is dismissed because of her race or immigration status, it reinforces the idea that those at greatest risk are white women, and silences the experiences of women of color in a world where rape is very much a real fear. When the media linger over lascivious sexualized details, evoking the Jezebel stereotype for a Black woman or the "spicy Latina" for a Latina, this also positions women of color as public sexual property.

7. Bystanders play a role.

Bystanders have the power to intervene in a crime, and they should be discussed in the context of rape cases. Steubenville provides an excellent example of how people could have, and should have, intervened, but chose not to. These choices should be discussed, and there should be a larger conversation about why many people fail -- or refuse -- to identify rape when it's occurring.

The idea that young men thought there was nothing remarkable about raping an unconscious girl is indicative of deep cultural problems, and some of those problems are perpetuated by the media. The media should be clearly defining rape and taking note of how bystanders respond, including in cases where people do intervene and it does make a difference.

8. False accusations are rare...and wrongful convictions rarer still.

It's really, really difficult to get accurate statistics on false rape accusations, for a number of reasons. Not least of which is that victims who retract accusations may not necessarily be admitting that their previous accusations are false; they could be responding to pressure to drop the case, to fears about going through a rape case in the justice system, or to concerns that they might not be able to win, even after baring themselves on the stand.

A number of studies seem to agree on an 8-10% false accusation rate, which seems high to me (and it's important to note that these numbers can be confused by not understanding the difference between an accusation, in which a suspect is identified, and a rape report, in which a victim files a police report about the incident). More recent research in Britain suggests the rate may be much lower.

Wrongful convictions for rape are even less likely, not least because so few rape reports proceed to an accusation and trial. While every wrongful conviction is of course awful, 203 people have been exonerated for rape convictions in the last 25 years, and while there are undoubtedly more (particularly men of color, who are disadvantaged in the justice system), the risk of wrongful conviction is grossly exaggerated.

9. Victims are human beings.

These people you're reporting about salaciously, dragging through the mud, talking about like they don't exist, smearing with false accusations, and treating like garbage?

Yeah. We're human beings. And we're right here. And we read the media, too.

We're reminded every time a high profile rape case comes up that we're considered worthless, that society is more concerned with the welfare of our rapists than us, that people have a strong interest in trying to absolve themselves of complicity in rape and rape culture.

And as long as the media keeps focusing on rape as an individual problem -- and activists follow suit by hyperfocusing on single instances -- nothing is going to change. The media absolutely play a role in rape culture, and we should be talking about media framings of rape, but we need to look at the big picture here.