How media coverage of sexual violence gets it wrong


The stories seem endless. In India, men raped teenagers and hanged their bodies on trees. In small-town England, gangs groomed thousands of underage girls for systemic rape. In American college campuses, students filmed their schoolmates getting drunk and being abused. And that was just in the last month.

“My sense is there’s a lot of focus on sexual violence in the news media,” said Pamela Mejia, a researcher with the California-based Berkeley Media Studies Group (BMSG), which is currently analyzing the portrayal of sexual violence in American media.

But while more sexual violence reports seem to make the news lately, much of the coverage still falls short of explaining why and how such attacks happen as well as how they can be prevented, Mejia said.

Reports tend to concentrate on the criminal facts of a case, such as suspects, arrests and trials, she said. News stories also often use language that avoids placing responsibility on perpetrators while seeming to imply the victim’s consent. At the same time, Mejia said, misleading stereotypes – such as the image of the rapist as a monster – endure. Shifting those perceptions could be a big step in the struggle to stop sexual violence, she said.

“The news is critical to shaping the conversation around [an issue],” Mejia said. “It’s a powerful force for changing minds and changing the agenda.”

Yet in the BMSG’s 2011 study on child sexual abuse in the news, the group found that more than 90 percent of the 348 articles examined focused on one or more specific incidents. Less than one third mentioned solutions. Those that did suggested individualized efforts such as parent responses instead of large-scale, institutional remedies such as educational programs in schools or hospitals, according to the study, which the BMSG presented as part of their preliminary findings at the 2014 National Sexual Assault Conference, held last month in Pennsylvania. Even less common were those addressing perpetrators’ behavior, the study found.

Part of it, Mejia said, is the nature of news reporting. Most publications need a criminal justice news peg such as a trial or an arrest to occur before they cover a sexual violence story. Crime accounted for only 4 percent of general news coverage in 2010, according to The Poynter Institute.

“When there’s a criminal justice element, that’s the only place where sexual violence shows up,” Mejia said. “It’s a hard system to break.”

The use of neutral storytelling language can also be harmful, said Karen Baker, director of the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC), a Pennsylvania-based nonprofit.

“You might see a case about a teacher and a younger child, and it’s presented like they were having a sexual relationship,” Baker said. “We need to make it clearer: Who is the responsible person?”

“When news organizations choose euphemistic language – such as using 'performed oral sex' vs. 'forced his mouth on the victim’s vagina' – they perpetuate the stigma, shame and victim-blaming often associaed with these crimes … while losing sight of the perpetrator,” according to a Poynter course on sexual violence reporting

Changing the narrative around sexual violence also means ridding stories of false stereotypes that misinform the public. How the media portrays the rapist informs what audiences, readers and therefore juries expect to see, said Nicole Westmarland, a professor of criminology at Durham University in the UK and the former chair of Rape Crisis England and Wales. 

In majority of cases of sexual violence against children, the victim knew the perpetrator intimately, according to a new UNICEF report. Yet the BMSG found that many news articles fail to describe the relationship between victim and accused, which helps preserve the myth that rapists are often strangers.

“They are all around us – in the supermarket, doing the school pick-ups, in nightclubs,” Westmarland said. “It does no one any favors to portray them as monsters.”

Even rape survivors are often typified as weak and vulnerable, when “the reality is that many survivors of rape are the strongest women you’ll ever meet," Westmarland said. "Often this isn’t reflected in the way they are portrayed, particularly in the popular ‘head-in-hands, crying’ imagery used alongside articles.”

Despite these shortcomings, there is a shift happening in the media, BMSG’s Mejia said.

“Journalists and others seem to be really thinking about the institutions around sexual violence, and how we can hold those institutions accountable so it becomes possible to prevent more victimization,” she said.

The New York Times, for instance, began making a conscious effort to steer clear of vague language when the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Pennsylvania State University broke in 2011.

“[I]t’s time that The Times and other news organizations take another look at the language they use … [and how it] consistently underplays the brutality of sex crimes and misapplies terms that imply consent," Arthur Brisbane, then the paper’s public editor, wrote in his column addressing the issue.

Educational institutions such as Poynter and Columbia Journalism School’s Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma are also training reporters and students in best practices for covering sexual violence. At the same time, efforts such as the Women Under Siege Project, run by the Women’s Media Center, provide platforms for journalists of all genders to comprehensively discuss the issue.

“There’s a really heartening movement,” Mejia said. “There’s so much interest in changing the conversation.” 

More on GlobalPost: One in 10 girls abused sexually worldwide: UN report

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