Is the news media complicit in spreading rape culture?

While he was driving to work one day, Matthew Baum heard something on the radio that stuck with him. It was 2013, and NPR was playing a sound bite from CNN about the Steubenville rape case. In response to the guilty verdict, correspondent Poppy Harlow expressed a questionable amount of sympathy for the alleged rapists, saying on air, “Incredibly difficult, even for an outsider like me, to watch what happened as these two young men that had such promising futures, star football players, very good students, literally watched as they believed their lives fell apart.”

For Baum, the clip was unsettling. “My reaction was emotionally strong,” he says. “Like, This is gross.” He kept wondering how prevalent this—sympathy for alleged rapists—really was in the news media. So he decided to study it. A researcher at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Baum teamed up with his colleague Dara Kay Cohen and then-graduate student Yuri Zhukov, now with the University of Michigan. After several years of scraping data from newspapers and other data sets, they published their findings in the Quarterly Journal of Political Science this August—the first-ever long-term study of rape culture, a set of societal attitudes that normalize sexual violence.

“We find that where there is more rape culture in the press, there is more rape,” write the authors. The study examines how rape is covered by the news media, which the researchers say reflect local community norms, and finds a correlation between media coverage and incidence of sexual assault. To be clear, the study does not suggest that news coverage “causes” rape, but that it reflects local norms toward sexual assault. The level of rape culture in the media predicts both the frequency of rape and how it’s handled by local criminal justice systems.

For a long time, people have worried that biased news coverage of rape may prevent victims from coming forward; this study supports that theory. The researchers found rape occurs more often in communities where the media perpetuates rape culture. “In jurisdictions where rape culture was more prevalent, there were more documented rape cases, but authorities were less vigilant in pursuing them,” they write. Rape culture is difficult to measure, but there are a few common characteristics like victim blaming, implying victim consent, questioning victim credibility, and showing empathy for the alleged perpetrator. For example, some news organizations might imply a “sexual relationship” between victim and perpetrator, or include details that could cast doubt on the victim’s credibility, like their clothing choices or that they were drinking.

The researchers developed a text classification model to determine if there was rape culture in newspapers. Baum says they pored over all rape-related news stories published by 279 local and national US newspapers between 2000 and 2013. They paired this with data from FBI Uniform Crime Reports of reports and arrests for rape, and found that rape culture in the press was more common during two phases of the criminal justice process: the arrest and the prosecution. “If there’s more rape culture, the police are probably less likely to investigate and make arrests,” Baum says.

The study shows there are higher numbers of reported rapes in areas where a larger proportion of news coverage repeated elements of rape culture. The good news, says Baum, is that less than 5 percent of the 310,938 articles they examined contained such language. However, when they did spot those elements, it really seemed to matter. “It’s very unevenly distributed,” Baum says. That kind of reporting was highly concentrated in certain geographic regions, like the mountain states, the upper midwest, and central California. According to the study, the top 100 counties with most prevalent rape culture coverage are in North Carolina, Minnesota, California, and Iowa.

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They also noted a connection between the number of reported rape cases and the volume of rape coverage, albeit a more positive one. “A standard deviation rise in the local number of stories about rape . . . is associated with two additional reported rape cases per 1,000 residents in a county-year,” the researchers write. Contrary to their prior findings, there’s an increased likelihood police will follow through on reports and make arrests when newspapers produce a greater volume of rape-related stories. In terms of volume, the median newspaper published 52 rape-related news stories and editorials between 2000 and 2013. National publications like The Washington Post and The New York Times published far more rape-related coverage than other news organizations—more than 20,000 articles and editorials each during the 13-year time frame.  

According to Baum, newsrooms can learn a lot from this study. It reinforces the idea that what we report and how we report it matters, especially when it involves sensitive or potentially re-traumatizing situations like sexual assault. The profession has made headway over the years. Today there’s a toolkit for reporting on sexual violence, one that’s far more sophisticated than previous decades, according to Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma. “I think there’s no doubt that in many if not all news organizations there’s really been a revolution in how we write about victims and survivors,” he says. In newsrooms, for example, there are arguments over the nuances of language, about whether to refer to sources as “victims” or “survivors.” That wasn’t the case in the past.

Jessica Valenti, who has unpacked the implications of news coverage on rape culture over the length of her career, outlined some rules for journalists in The Nation five years ago. Like Shapiro, she agrees that coverage of rape has improved, not necessarily because of increased sensitivity of reporters but of increased diversity in newsrooms. “Having more women report and write on these stories makes a difference,” she says. There’s also more accountability today with the prevalence of social media outrage.

For journalists who want to better report on sexual violence and trauma, the Dart Center has a whole section dedicated to the topic on its site, and organizations like Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, the Women’s Media Center, and Femifesto provide similar guidelines. Shapiro notes that these resources, and the improved media coverage of sexual violence today, is only made possible by “a whole generation of reporters going back to the 1990s (that) began pushing the legitimacy of sexual assault as a news issue,” citing the work of journalists like Kristen Lombardi at the Center for Public Integrity and Rachel Dissell of The Plain Dealer. He says there’s a great tradition of ethical reporting on sexual assault, such as Dissell’s investigations into rape kits in Cleveland.  

Still, the news media needs to remind their audiences of the wider context in which perpetrators of sexual violence act. “We also have an obligation to understand what the research and evidence shows on a larger scale,” Dissell says. “That most sex crimes aren’t reported. That most people who report sex crimes are telling the truth about something happening to them. And that in many cases, people are targeted because they were in some way vulnerable.”

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Meg Dalton is a freelance journalist and audio producer based in Connecticut. She's reported and edited for CJR, PBS NewsHour, Energy News Network, Architectural Digest, MediaShift, Hearst Connecticut newspapers, and more. Follow her on Twitter: @megdalts. Find her on Twitter @megdalts.