4 ways the media does a disservice to sexual assault survivors

People who work in the media have a tremendous responsibility to report the facts without letting unnecessary information taint them.

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Society has certainly made progress in highlighting the prevalence of sexual assault and emphasizing that it could happen to anyone. However, statistics show that only 310 in 1,000 rape cases get reported to the police. 

Survivors may have many reasons for not coming forward. However, some of their hesitation likely relates to the problematic ways the media often covers sexual assault incidents.

1. Misplaced blame

When people discuss publicized incidents of rape, they often point out irrelevant factors to distract from the genuine issue. They might say that a raped person’s clothing attracted sexual attention or that they were drunk when the assault occurred.

In India, politicians brought up everything from eating chow mein to using cell phones as contributing factors to rape. Some headlines of rape in the country also used the passive voice and had structures suggesting that the survivor was somehow at least partially to blame for what happened.

When media narratives spend too much time discussing what factors were in the survivor’s control that led to them getting raped, it takes attention off the crime committed. However, this is not a new issue. Michael Lerner introduced it in the 1960s as the “just-world bias.”

He conducted numerous experiments concerning observers who saw unjust things happen to others. Lerner eventually concluded that witnessing such things interfered with the observer’s deep-seated belief in a just world. However, framing the situation to see the victim as at least partially responsible for what happened reduced the unease they felt.

2. Misdirected sympathy

Reporters from media outlets often interview or otherwise give coverage to people who say things that indicate they feel sorry for the perpetrators of rape. During the 2017 downfall of movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, actress Lindsay Lohan expressed support and said she felt very bad for him in an Instagram clip that got quickly deleted.

However, you’ll also see instances of sympathy for less-prolific accused sexual assaulters. When the news comes out that a star footballer raped a girl at a frat party, people commenting on the issue might mention how unfortunate it is because he had such a promising career ahead of him. 

Sometimes, the sympathy even becomes apparent in court rulings. Consider the instance where a New Jersey family court judge denied a motion to try a 16-year-old rapist as an adult. The judge cited several character-related reasons in his decision. Those included that he came from a good family and had done well in school, including during his college entrance exams. This same type of bias came into play during the Brock Turner case of 2016 as well.

3. Doubting victims

Statistics show that one in three women and one in six men will experience sexual violence. Despite that high rate, there’s still a significant issue of survivors not being believed when they disclose what happened. The media’s coverage plays a role in exacerbating that problem.

A study proved this when researchers gave participants certain details of rape cases known to cause bias. They included what the survivor wore and whether they knew the perpetrator. None of the specifics were legally relevant. However, the research team found that those details collectively influenced whether people believed the victim and the harshness of the punishment they thought the perpetrator deserved.

Indeed, people hear things about sexual assault from other sources than the media. They might come from the university gossip mill, for example. But, the above study emphasizes how important it is that media professionals only include genuinely relevant details when they write stories about assaults.

4. Social media attacks

Once the news media begins covering a sexual assault, people quickly begin forming opinions on what happened. However, some countries take steps to limit the damage. In Ireland, for example, the names of victims of serious sexual assault stay anonymized in media coverage.

Researchers examined a five-year span of social media posts related to sexual assaults. They discovered that certain reporting mechanisms used when covering sexual assault cases could trigger more social media attacks against a survivor. More specifically, if a reporter tries to stay balanced by reporting both sides of what happened, readers start feeling uncertain about who is telling the truth. Then, they often take sides on social media.

Additionally, the team found that people use social media to reinforce sexual assault stereotypes. An example given within their research was when sorority girls got raped by football team members. After such incidents, there were often corresponding social media posts from people arguing that the survivors “asked for” what happened to them.

The research team clarified that they need to investigate these matters further. However, this study’s results suggested that media professionals might be able to reduce social media attacks against survivors by changing how they cover stories.

Media professionals must remember the influence they have

Although people sometimes engage in extensive mental gymnastics to justify sexual assault, there’s no getting around the reality that it’s a crime. Nothing the survivor does or fails to do during the incident changes that fact.

People who work in the media have a tremendous responsibility to report the facts without letting unnecessary information taint them. It doesn’t matter if a sexual assault survivor knew the perpetrator, if they didn’t fight back to stop the rape, or if they were drunk when it happened.

Trying to shift the blame to a victim only increases the trauma they’ve already suffered and it could negatively influence the public’s beliefs regarding the incident. When media employees understand that, they do their part to contribute factual information about traumatic incidents. This matters more than people may initially realize.

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