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The problem with the media’s coverage of sexual assault

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The world will probably never know the details of what happened to UC Berkeley sociology student Meghan Warner while at a fraternity party in 2013.

Warner has never revealed details nor sought charges against the men she says raped and sexually assaulted her, mostly because she says she didn't want her story and her life picked apart in the public eye.

“It was a self-protection measure,” Warner said. “I have no doubt that if I had named my perpetrators, a lot of hate would be very publicly directed toward me and I couldn’t handle that.”

Warner may not have gone to court, but she still wanted justice. She was one of 31 UC Berkeley students and alumni who filed a complaint against the university in 2014 alleging that the school mishandled student sexual assault cases.

Warner, still a student at Berkeley, now heads the Associated Students of the University of California’s Sexual Assault Commission and has become an outspoken activist against sexual violence.

As an advocate, Warner worries about the current debate over campus sexual assault in the news media.

“When the media make mistakes it does hurt activism and advocacy in terms of what the public thinks (about sexual assault),” Warner said. “It gives anyone who thinks we’re lying evidence — or what they think is evidence — that we’re blowing this issue out of proportion.”

Sexual assault and rape have always been sensitive topics, but recent media accounts of campus rape have made it even more difficult to talk about.

This month, Slate’s Emily Yoffe accused filmmakers behind the campus rape documentary “The Hunting Ground” of being inaccurate.

Yoffe’s take on “The Hunting Ground” comes in the wake of the Columbia School of Journalism’s report on Rolling Stone’s erroneous account of a gang rape at the University of Virginia. Published last November, the story drew heavily from a UVA student’s graphic account of her rape at a fraternity.

Soon after, the Washington Post and other media outlets found that the victim at the core of Rolling Stone’s story fabricated her account.

After a four-month investigation, Columbia concluded that the fault was with reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdley and Rolling Stone’s editors and fact-checkers, who didn’t stop publication when certain facts couldn’t be confirmed.

Rolling Stone managing editor Will Dana issued a full retraction of the story and an apology, though no one was fired.

University of Miami law professor and Cyber Civil Rights Initiative vice president Mary Anne Franks says the issue in light of debunked media accounts about campus rape is not whether to talk about rape, but how to talk about it in a more responsible way.

“Rolling Stone’s UVA story came at a delicate moment when the media were willing to hear victim stories because of a fragile new sympathy about sexual assault on campus,” Franks said. “You’re still hearing about rape more than you used to, but now people want to be hyper-skeptical of these narratives.”

The ‘perfect’ victim

So much of the problem with the media’s coverage of sexual assault lies with extreme stereotypes of victimhood.

In its criticism of Rolling Stone’s story, the Columbia Journalism School pointed out the magazine was looking for an “emblematic narrative” to illustrate the problems of campus sexual assault and how universities handle it.

The desire to seek out an unbelievable or shocking story is not isolated to Rolling Stone, Warner says, or even to journalists.

“The sensationalized assault story is a huge issue. (Erdley) went looking for the perfect victim,” Warner said. “We have this idea that sexual violence has to be the worst thing a woman could experience and it has to be the worst thing imaginable. If it’s not that, then we just think it must not be that bad.”

Warner’s perfect victim theory is the idea that if an act occurred, the victim would act or conduct herself in a certain way, like readily identifying perpetrators, being able to recall events clearly and in order, or going to the authorities immediately after the assault.

But Warner says the emotional and mental trauma that comes with rape doesn’t guarantee a clear narrative for someone who’s experienced it, yet the media and public hold victims to those standards of behavior.

“Unless you’re a ‘perfect’ rape victim, there will be holes in your story that won’t align because trauma affects memory,” Warner said. “People who know nothing about trauma say, ‘Well, that’s not how I’d react, so she’s lying.’”

Some rape accusations might be false, but that doesn’t mean that false reports of rape overall are disproportionately high, University of Colorado Denver public affairs professor Callie Rennison said. The problem, she said, is that the media often don't report the facts about false rape reports.

“The assumption is that so many women engage in false accusations and it’s just not true,” Rennison said. “False reports, where the accuser is lying, is less than 10 percent. That’s no more false reports than any other crime, but they don’t report that.”

Franks says entertainment media play a huge role in promoting stereotypes and assumptions about how victims of sexual violence look and behave.

“The drumbeat of pornography is that all sex is consensual, even if it doesn’t look like it, and if there is a problem, it means she’s a prude,” Franks said. “The entertainment industry is devoted to making sexual objectification look sexy. It’s complicated to leap over a culture that tells you that every disgusting or violent act is someone’s fetish, so that makes it fine.”

Franks says the news media aren't immune from using shocking stories to attract readers.

“The most controversial thing is what everyone is going to talk about. People want the controversy, so news outlets give them what they want,” Franks said. “The industry knows they’ll be rewarded for that. It’s a cycle we’re all trapped in right now.”

Warner says the idea of perfect victims and errors in news coverage fuel skepticism toward women who come forward with rape allegations.

“There was so much more coverage when they found flaws in the Rolling Stone story than when it first came out,” Warner said. “It was more interesting to catch a girl lying than that someone was assaulted.”

A new conversation

Columbia Journalism School professor Nicholas Lemann says that the news media’s new current fascination with campus sexual assault is a reflection of how society’s attitudes about sexual assault are changing.

“In the case of sexual conduct now, the big message is that a sexual encounter can begin as consensual and one partner may change his or her mind in the process,” Lemann said. “That’s a very important proposed behavioral change.”

Lemann and Rennison say the code of sexual conduct has changed drastically since they were growing up.

“Things that went on when I was young weren’t thought of as rape or come close to rape,” Lemann said. “The conventional thinking used to be that the answer to rape was chastity — to take women’s sexuality away from them.”

“When I was younger, for a young man to get a girl drunk and have sex with her was kind of that game,” Rennison said. “Now we’re having to teach people that sex with an unconscious person is rape. That conversation has come more to the surface.”

Retired University of Maryland professor Gary Pavela says the changing social norms around rape converges with another problem: The language we use to talk about it.

“When we talk about campus sexual assault, we’re dealing with young people who were not terribly experienced in verbalizing how they want a sexual encounter to play out,” Pavela said. “Most of the cases I dealt with in 25 years at the University of Maryland dealt with confusion over what consent means.”

Rennison says defining the actions attributed to rape or sexual assault gets more problematic when the media report on academic studies that use “sexual assault” as a blanket term that could cover any activity from unwanted touching to unwanted intercourse.

“Often the media doesn’t note the range of activities the study defined or the questions the study asked,” Rennison said. “There needs to be a precision in the language we use about this, but when the research community speaks in broad terms, I can’t blame the media.”

When researchers define a wide range of activities with broad terms, Rennison says it can impact the resulting data.

Pointing that fact out is complicated, she said, citing the case of UC Berkeley professor Neil Gilbert. When Gilbert published a controversial article suggesting that statistics related to rape may be inflated, protesters threatened to cut off his penis.

Pavela also said the fight to adopt a certain language when talking about sexual violence is difficult because rape is both an emotional and political issue. Pavela says he’s struggled to get colleagues in higher education to adopt more neutral terms that don’t show a bias toward one side or another in an assault case — a very unpopular undertaking.

“Right now the popular term (for a rape victim) is survivor, for example,” Pavela said. “The person bringing a complaint may be that, but we shouldn’t use that term in my view until we establish what the facts are.”

New solutions

Rennison and Franks both said they felt the Rolling Stone article wasn’t an example of how journalism as a whole is handling rape and sexual assault. “The sad thing about the Rolling Stone story is that it overshadows the good journalism that’s done on sexual assault every day,” Franks said. “You don’t get a headline like, ‘Well-researched story was indeed well-researched.’”

What should be done to correct the narrative about sexual assault cases in the media goes hand-in-hand with changing individual perceptions about rape.

Rennison hopes to shift media focus away from the idea of rape as sex gone wrong and more about it being a crime.

“Just like when someone hits you with an ax, that’s an act of violence,” Rennison said. “So is rape.”

Franks wants the media to refrain from assuming the people who come forward as victims are lying.

“It’s not that we shouldn’t pay attention to false accusations, it’s that the media never seizes on people lying about other crimes,” Franks said. “People think that’s a normal thing to ask of a victim of rape.”

Warner thinks journalists shouldn’t go out of their way to identify perpetrators.

“I know they have to fact check, but I think it would help to not talk to perpetrators unless the survivor identifies them,” Warner said. “When that happens, it’s inviting the survivor out for retaliation and the fear of that is why many people don’t report in the first place.”

While the media world recovers from Rolling Stone’s mistakes, Rennison says she hopes the media won’t stop investigating sexual assault. Eventually, she’s optimistic the media and the public will get the facts right across the board.

“What’s changed about media coverage of sexual assault is there’s more of it,” Rennison said. “But we continue to see rape as some sort of sex regretted. It’s not sex. It’s a violent crime.”

Email: chjohnson@deseretnews.com

Twitter: ChandraMJohnson