Friday, December 12, 2008

The media and rape (by Suzie)

       At my last newspaper, an editor complained that I was biased as a feminist. The only evidence he could cite was that I had once called a rape victim a “survivor,” even though I noted in the feature story that she preferred that term over "victim."
       How the media handles rape has long interested me. I’d like to clarify some issues that have surfaced on feminist blogs, starting with some comments I made at Corrente.
       What you or I consider rape may not be defined that way in state law. For example, some states use "rape" for forced intercourse and "sexual assault" for sexual contact that doesn't involve intercourse. In other states, “sexual assault” includes forced intercourse. Media guidelines on libel and word usage call for reporters to use the proper legal terms.
       Similarly, reporters are not supposed to call a homicide a "murder" unless someone gets convicted of murder. The killer might end up being convicted of manslaughter, for example, not murder as defined under the law. The 2000 AP Stylebook is online and explains this.
       In the case against Roman Polanski, for instance, a recent NYT article describes him as having had “sex” with a 13-year-old, presumably because he pleaded guilty to “sex with a minor.” (He had originally been charged with rape, but plea-bargained down. Samantha Geimer has always maintained that she did not consent, but the article fails to mention this. His lawyers filed a motion this month to throw out the charge.)
       In some cases, everyone agrees that a rape (or sexual assault) occurred. A famous example would be the "Central Park Jogger" case. But in many cases, as with Kobe Bryant, evidence of intercourse doesn't prove rape. And defendants can try to explain away much physical abuse by saying the victim wanted rough sex. This has led some media to refer to "sex"  or "sexual intercourse" until rape is proven.
       “One of the issues I've seen in media stories is calling an alleged rape ‘sex’ or writing ‘it's undisputed that they had sex,’ when the defendant claims consent with the assumption that this is a neutral phrasing when it actually implies that the person reporting rape consented,” wrote Marcella Chester in an email. I had asked her opinion because I respect what she writes on her blogs, Abyss2hope and Date Rape is Real Rape. “The other issue I've seen is for unverified defense claims or leading defense questions to be repeated as if they are verified facts.”
        I agree that reporters need to be more careful in their coverage, and I would love to see the media discuss their wording more often. They should understand that “sex” has the connotation of consent, even though the dictionary does not define it that way. In fact, rape often is defined as forced sexual intercourse, thus making it a subset of sex.
         This can lead to problems such as the Nebraska judge who banned all use of the words “rape” or “sexual assault” in a rape case while allowing the accused to describe what happened as “sex.” (The prosecution gave up after two mistrials, and the creep went free.) In October, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal of the judge's decision.
         The mainstream media does not reveal the name of rape victims unless the victims consent. When a victim doesn't want her name used, reporters will call her a "victim" if it's undisputed that a rape occurred or if they can attribute the description to someone else, as in: "Police said the victim ...."If the man claims it was consensual sex, and a court hasn't ruled, then reporters will avoid the term “victim” without attribution. An example of this thinking is the judge in the Kobe Bryant case who ruled that the woman couldn't be called “the victim” in court. The NYT discussed the issue.
         Some reporters will refer to “the accuser,” which I think is a step up from “the alleged victim,” as noted in this Poynter column on the Bryant case. As with “rape” vs. “sex,” good reporters can “write around” the problem. They may substitute a description such as “the woman” or “the student,” but they need to avoid prejudicial descriptions, such as “the stripper.” (I’m thinking of the Duke case. Obviously, a lot of people think sex workers can’t be raped.)
        Writer Colette Bancroft commented on the Poynter column, saying the media uses "victim" for other crimes, such as theft or carjacking, even though the "victim" may turn out to be lying. I’d argue that reporters do use “victim” in rape cases until a question arises about what happened. Similarly, they stop using "victim" in any case where the crime is questioned.
        This may become moot as more and more media, including blogs, post the names of victims. (I can say "victims" all I want in this construction.) That happened in the Central Park and Kobe Bryant cases.
        It’s not just women’s names getting posted, of course. To me, the most disturbing trend in rape reporting is the vicious attacks online against women, especially those who accuse sports figures or other popular men. Even the victim of a man who is less known may find herself torn apart by the anonymous misogynists who comment on newspapers online. 
           At Abyss2hope, you can check out the latest Carnival Against Sexual Violence.
           Marcella Chester is going to the Women, Action and the Media conference in March to speak on “Pulling the Plug on Rape Culture One Word at a Time:
Using Accuracy to Undermine Dangerous Attitudes and Injustice.” If this matters to you, please consider donating to defray her costs. You can click on the “chip in” button on her site. If you’re in the spirit to give, please don’t forget our own goddess, who has a link for donations at the top of this page.