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How Media Reports Exacerbate Rape Culture

When media cover the issue of sexual violence, they often reinforce rape myths, minimizing survivors' experiences of violence. (Image: Behind glass via Shutterstock)

Nigerian feminist and author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has observed that the ways in which stories are told, as well as “who tells them, when they’re told, [and] how many stories are told, are really dependent on power … Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.”

When media outlets cover the issue of sexual violence, they often reinforce common narratives about the nature of a “true victim” of rape and thereby negate the experiences of others who are harmed by sexual violence. Media agencies also have the power – and responsibility – to illuminate the multiplicity of ways in which sexual violence is perpetrated, and in doing so, inform the public of what such violence can look like.

Recently, Chicago Sun-Times columnist and editorial board member Mary Mitchell argued that “prostitutes” cannot be rape victims and that putting them under the category makes a “mockery of rape.”

Mitchell was referring to an unidentified woman who had a gun drawn on her when she showed up at the home of Roy Akin, a man who went to agreeing to pay $180 for sex.

“When you agree to meet a strange man in a strange place for the purpose of having strange sex for money, you are putting yourself at risk for harm,” Mitchell wrote. “It’s tough to see this unidentified prostitute as a victim … And because this incident is being charged as a criminal sexual assault – when it’s actually more like theft of services – it minimizes the act of rape.”

The Society of Professional Journalists states “ethical journalism treats sources, subjects, colleagues and members of the public as human beings deserving of respect.” It emphasizes the importance of following ethical standards so as to minimize harm against the subjects being reported on.

It seems unlikely that the woman who responded to a Backpage ad and then was sexually assaulted at gunpoint would see Mitchell’s column dismissing her assault as a “theft of services” as an effort to treat her as a human being deserving of respect.

Appropriately, there was a firestorm in response from both advocates and the public at large. But beyond this particular controversy, Mitchell’s column points to a larger cultural and institutional issue existing within media establishments and media culture writ large: the danger of the singular narrative.

In this case, Mitchell’s piece framed the “real” rape victim as a suburban woman who is brutally stabbed, beaten and raped as well as robbed, while framing sex workers as incapable of being raped. This represents the commonly understood social narrative about rape victims – that there is a hierarchy of rape. This narrative is incomplete and biased in a fashion that is systematic, institutional and dangerous.

This hierarchy of rape is intrinsically tied to a hierarchy of power – one where institutions implicitly corroborate social narratives about rape victims, which consequently minimize the victims’ experiences of sexual violence as trivial and insignificant. This is evident within high-profile cases such as the one involving Chicago Blackhawks player Patrick Kane. Now widespread news, Kane is the target of a rape investigation involving an unnamed woman from his hometown of Buffalo, New York.

In a September 29 editorial, the Chicago Tribune discussed the DNA results from the rape kit test and the impact these results may have on the ongoing investigation. Like Mitchell, the Chicago Tribune’s editorial board produces an analysis that ignores the multiplicity of ways in which sexual violence is perpetrated and experienced.

Kane’s attorneys say the DNA found on the accuser’s lower body did not match him, and the prosecutor did not contradict that claim….

Three possibilities cannot be ruled out. The first is that Kane committed rape. The second is that the accuser made it up. The third is that something else happened. Right now, no one except those privy to all the full details can know which it is.

In terms of the DNA results, there is some important information that the editorial board leaves out and misrepresents: Kane’s DNA was found under the victim’s fingernails and in bite marks on her shoulders. No traces of Kane’s DNA were found on her undergarments or genital area. By focusing on the fact that DNA other than Kane’s was found “on the accuser’s lower body,” the editorial subtly impugns the victim’s report, rather than focusing solely on what is known. In addition, the editorial fails to acknowledge that the National Hockey League would actually be acting well within its power and authority to suspend Kane based solely on what is currently known, even without charges being brought against him. Suspending Kane with pay is not deciding he’s guilty; it’s saying that what he’s being investigated for is serious.

However, this isn’t just about Kane. This is about a major sports league and a well-respected professional hockey team choosing to not take the action that is within their power given the collective bargaining agreement. They – and the Chicago Tribune – are sending a message that sports matter more than sexual assault. It’s the wrong message.

A More Ethical Approach to Reporting on Rape and Sexual Violence

Every day the publication of new journalistic pieces such as these contribute to a broader culture of rape. That’s why everyone who opposes gender-based violence must address the role that media outlets play in perpetuating violence against victims of sexual violence. It is not merely a trend but a decades-old problem to see media blame survivors for the violence they endure or minimize their experiences of violence. This problem runs counter to the Society of Professional Journalists’ edict that reporters must “consider the long-term implications of the extended reach and permanence of publication.”

It is for this reason that in 2012, we co-authored “Reporting on Rape and Sexual Violence,” a media toolkit for reporters to help better media coverage. This toolkit considers how media structure news around rape and sexual violence, and offers suggestions on how to replace popular victim-blaming myths with education.

A critical suggestion we offer reporters is that they write from an intersectional lens. What this means is that there needs to be an understanding of the interlocking oppressions that victims of sexual violence face, such as homophobia, transphobia, racism, classism, sexism and ableism. Put otherwise, an intersectional approach asks that the reporter consider how the power of different institutions produces and/or enables a matrix of violence and oppression, and consider how the survivor is embedded within that matrix. To enlist an intersectional framework means to account for how different institutions of power disproportionately impact survivors of violence – especially women of color, and particularly queer and trans women of color.

Unlike most white women, women of color are not easily afforded the status of victim or survivor, and instead are frequently framed as the culprits of the violence perpetuated against them. Or they are erased from mainstream media altogether. Indeed, stories on how Black, Brown and Indigenous women navigate all aspects of the violence matrix are rarely reported.

In her book Arrested Justice: Black Women, Violence, and America’s Prison Nation, Beth Richie, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Illinois at Chicago, addresses not only how the media fail to report accurately on the interlocking oppressions affecting Black women, and women of color more generally, but also how institutions at-large fail them. “The victimization of some black women seems to invoke a set of institutional reactions that lead to further vilification, rather than protection or support,” she argues.

Richie recounts the horrific treatment of Tanya, a young Black girl who was criminalized for delivering a baby in a bathroom stall of her high school, placing the newborn in her backpack, and disposing of the backpack in one of the school’s dumpsters. Richie explains that in cases such as Tanya’s, no reporters ask about these “young women’s lives outside of the tragic events.” The reporters covering Tanya’s ordeal failed to understand her history of surviving sexual violence, an important factor that influenced her act of desperation. As a result of not adding this necessary context, Richie writes, “highly sensationalized, oversimplified versions of these stories prevail.” She makes clear that the media’s portrayal of violence against women of color “typically [furthers] the criminalization of their experience.”

Despite the fact that there are layers to how survivors experience rape and sexual violence, most articles published offer singular accounts that minimize the magnitude of the issue. The danger of that narrow narrative is multifold. Jurors’ judgments in rape trials are influenced more by the attitudes, beliefs and biases about rape that jurors bring with them into the courtroom than by the objective facts presented. Studies show that negative reactions to rape victims, such as blaming or disbelieving, harm their recovery. Mitchell’s column, the Chicago Tribune’s editorial and Tanya’s story serve as perfect examples of narrowly conceived narratives about who qualifies as the “real” rape victim.

Incorporating an intersectional framework when reporting, however, enables a more integral, nuanced and accurate reporting praxis because it considers the complex realities of how survivors experience violence. Writing from an intersectional lens offers readers a complete story on the violence experienced by the victim as opposed to a partial one because it treats the story as part of a broader culture of structural violence, and not as an isolated issue. Intersectional reporting can help radically shift the dynamic of how stories of rape and sexual violence are told, and how these issues are culturally, socially and politically understood.

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