April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, but based on the way most news outlets cover sexual assault and harassment cases year-round, it seems they didn’t get the memo.
Since the month of awareness was officially instituted in 2001, the goal has been to educate the public about sexual violence and teach people how to prevent it. Yet media tend to make the same three mistakes when covering cases: They blame victims, they treat offenders like the “true” victims, and they almost exclusively cover cases that confirm pre-existing cultural biases about “believable” survivors and culpable offenders.
Although high-profile cases that dominate media coverage may make sexual assault seem like an isolated problem, the National Sexual Violence Resource Center reports that “one in five women and one in 71 men will be raped at some point in their lives.” Similarly, the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey found that “nearly half” of survey respondents “were sexually assaulted at some point in their lifetime.” Given the sheer number of challenges survivors face when reporting sexual assault and harassment, these numbers are likely much higher. According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, 63 percent of rapes and sexual assaults already go unreported.
Beyond cases of rape and assault, sexual harassment is also rampant in the United States. Although Fox News has finally parted ways with Bill O’Reilly after multiple women reported that he sexually harassed them, the problem goes beyond him or even the network.
After 2005 footage that showed President Donald Trump bragging about sexual assault was leaked to the media last year, networks downplayed the severity of his comments -- calling them merely “vulgar” or “lewd” -- and attacked the credibility of the women who came forward with specific allegations against him.
Sexual assault isn’t just “vulgar” -- it’s unacceptable. And what’s really “vulgar” is media’s refusal to call it what it is. This is rape culture: the willingness to treat sexual assault or harassment as natural, inevitable, or acceptable. Rape culture not only silences survivors, it’s also at the root of why stalking, domestic violence, and workplace and online harassment are so pervasive: People treat these behaviors as if they’re normal or somehow the recipients invite them.
Media have an obligation to cover the issue in a fact-based and stigma-free way.
First, media need to ditch the victim-blaming rhetoric and quit treating survivors as if they are even partly responsible for what happened. Survivors are not, and will never be, responsible for inciting acts of sexual violence. Period.
When writing about sexual assault and harassment, choosing the right words is crucial to clearly, accurately, and compassionately communicate with broad audiences. A report from the Columbia Journalism Review found that when reporting on sexual assault, media rely on “leading language, scant statistics, and a whole lot of victim blaming” -- all of which contribute to downplaying and at times dismissing sexual violence allegations. Similarly, the Dart Center for Journalism instructs media to “avoid any language that might imply that the [survivor] is responsible in any way.”
Media coverage around former Stanford student Brock Turner showed that media outlets also tend to treat offenders as the real victims -- sympathetically highlighting past accomplishments, or bemoaning the costs to their careers.
Particularly when offenders are high-profile figures, media treat the issue as merely a “scandal.” Writing about allegations against his father Woody Allen, The Hollywood Reporter’s Ronan Farrow explained how these reactions cultivate a “culture of impunity and silence” around reporting on sexual assault allegations. By getting caught up in a cult of celebrity -- even when focusing on a deserved fall from grace -- media can either trade fact-based reporting for access or lose sight of their “obligation to include the facts, and to take them seriously.”
Finally, media scrutinize every move made by a survivor -- how they dressed, when they reported, and even their possible “ulterior” motives. While doing so, they tend to focus on cases that confirm pre-existing cultural biases about the identities of survivors and offenders.
Sexual violence happens in a wide variety of contexts and communities. And more often than not, survivors know their assailants prior to the assault. Nevertheless, media fixate on the myth of the “perfect victim”: an unrealistic expectation that believable victims of sexual assault are attractive, innocent white women who unwittingly provoke attack from an unknown (usually non-white) predator. As MSNBC’s Irin Carmon reported, accounts of sexual assault shouldn’t have to “be black and white, starring a perfect victim and a perfect set of villains, in order for us to get outraged.”
Rather than fixating on only these “perfect” examples, media should cover cases from across the spectrum of experience, and they should provide audiences with critical context about the widespread nature of sexual violence.
Sexual assault isn’t just a problem at Fox News or in “other communities”; it’s all around us. People look to the media to tell stories about their lives and the world at large, so reporters and outlets have an obligation to educate audiences about this reality and correct harmful misconceptions.
If the Trump-era media have shown us anything so far, it’s this: Survivors deserve far better.