The message I took away from this study isn’t that male journalists are inherently ill-equipped to report on rape; it’s that such a discrepancy means there isn’t enough education happening. Media outlets need to put better training and more thought into their coverage of campus rape so that gender doesn’t have such a big influence on coverage.
Indeed, male journalists being more skeptical and unwilling to talk to victims is hardly the only example of bias and neglect in the public view of rape victims. In a recent article that is the result of a collaboration between The Marshall Project and ProPublica, we see that popular notions of what victimhood looks like affect everyone, including those who are supposed to advocate for victims, The piece, “An Unbelievable Story of Rape” — an example of rigorous rape-related journalism — concerns a young woman named Marie, who had come through the foster care system and reported a devastating stranger rape.
Everyone around Marie, from law enforcement to her two foster moms/mentors, doubted her account because she wasn’t acting like a stereotypical victim, and because she continued to change certain details about the night in question. Experts will tell you both of these behaviors are common, but no one around Marie could get beyond the inconsistencies. One of the foster moms even confessed that her understanding of rape from Law and Order had influenced her judgment. If that’s not rape culture at work, what is?
Under pressure and coercion from a (mostly male) group of officers in a department with a habit of labeling rape claims “unfounded,” Marie ended up retracting her accusation and, in turn, being arrested and charged with making a false complaint. Among other things, Marie then almost lost her transitional housing, and she was humiliated and derided by her peers for being a “liar,” a brand that gave her pariah status.
Meanwhile, (female) police in other jurisdictions were tracking an incredibly devious serial rapist whose pattern was similar to the story reported by Marie. When they finally caught him, they found his pictures of Marie, who was in fact one of his victims:
Two and a half years after Marie was branded a liar, Lynnwood police found her, south of Seattle, and told her the news: Her rapist had been arrested in Colorado. They gave her an envelope with information on counseling for rape victims. They said her record would be expunged. And they handed her $500, a refund of her court costs. Marie broke down, experiencing, all at once, shock, relief and anger.
Marie’s story should cause as much or more outrage than it has, because Marie is the face of thousands of victims whose stories have never been told. Yet her widely doubted story was eventually corroborated by hard evidence — how many others have never been confirmed? And how many rape accusations that have been dismissed by the public or the police as false were actually true, or had some truth to them?
When it comes to rape cases, journalists, commentators, school administrators, and law enforcement officers all need better training to undo the damage done by rape culture. We still may not have a perfect method for adjudicating these cases, but as a culture we need to work towards a way of figuring out the truth without letting the influence of Law and Order plotlines get in the way.