Journalists and Law Enforcement Still Don’t Know How to Handle Rape


Campus rape was undoubtedly one of 2015’s hot topics, from the controversial documentary The Hunting Ground to Jon Krakauer’s Missosula to the continuation of older stories surrounding Columbia student Emma Sulkowicz’s anti-rape performance-art protest and a retracted story about rape at UVA in Rolling Stone.

But the media’s focus on these flash points of controversy perhaps obscures a bigger problem: the way our biases and socialization screw up our “instincts” when thinking about or covering the issue. What does it mean to be “objective” about rape? Conversely, what does it mean to trust our “gut”? Those kinds of questions have arisen again this past week, with a new survey showing how newspapers’ coverage of campus rape is flawed — as well as a masterful exposé of one “false rape” story that ended up not being false at all, highlighting prejudice in the local police department and even in the family of the victim.

These two stories are different, but both illuminate how culture has influenced our perceptions about rape. That makes it extra important for everyone, from journalists to law enforcement, to take several steps back and check their own preconceptions before approaching it.

Who covers campus rape? The Women’s Media Center commissioned a survey of all the campus rape coverage in 12 “top-circulation” newspapers and wire services throughout the US to see which reporters were covering the stories:

Our results show that coverage is significantly skewed toward the bylines and voices of men. Overall, men wrote 55 percent of the stories, while women wrote only 31 percent. (Another 14 percent of the stories did not contain bylines.) The disparity is more glaring in the coverage of sexual assault on campuses that appears in sports sections or in stories written by sports reporters — eight of the news outlets had zero bylines by women, and one outlet, AP, had only 1 percent of its stories in this arena bylined by women.

Fine, you might think. More men, by a smallish amount, covered the story. Does that necessarily mean anything substantive, or is it just reflective of an imbalanced profession?

According to the WMC’s researcher, this gap does make a difference:

Furthermore, our research shows that the gender of the writer had a significant impact on how stories were covered, with women journalists not only interviewing the alleged victims more often than male journalists, but also writing more about the impact of the alleged attacks on alleged victims. A higher share of women journalists covered university policies and the prevalence of rape on campus, while a higher share of male journalists focused on campus proceedings and sports culture on campus.

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.