Media outlets struggle with the coverage of sexual assault

[Michael Scott] /""

by Christina Gregg and Michelle Woodward

As colleges and universities across the country increasingly face complaints about the enforcement of sexual assault policies, media organizations continue to struggle with the balance between privacy and informing the public in a social media environment where information circulates with few gatekeepers.

 Often, scale makes a difference.

 “When you’re writing for a small newspaper and you’re writing about the people who live in the community, whether it’s a rape case or about somebody who decompensated into mental illness and then was arrested for some drug charge, it’s a painful thing,” said Laurie Loisel, the managing editor of the Daily Hampshire Gazette, a local newspaper in Amherst, Mass., with a circulation of 17,000 readers per day.

“It’s not my favorite kind of story to put in the paper but I feel like we need to do it and we can’t just decide not to put a story in the paper because it inflicts pain on the people in the community.”

Rape coverage came under heavy scrutiny a year ago when two high-school students were convicted of raping a 16-year-old girl in Steubenville, Ohio.

 A number of media outlets were taken to task for their coverage of the story. FOX, CNN and MSNBC were criticized for failing to edit the victim’s name out of a sound bite while the Associated Press and USA Today described her as “drunken” in the first sentence of both their articles.

For decades, journalists have followed an informal set of guidelines aimed at protecting the identities of rape victims. With the Steubenville case, which was also influenced by disclosures on Twitter and Facebook, those guidelines took a major hit.  Subsequently, questions have arisen as to whether news stories on alleged rapes are covered in a way that properly informs the public while protecting the privacy of both the accused and the victim.

 Scott Allen, a senior assistant Metro editor of The Boston Globe, says there is an issue with the way sexual assaults are covered by the media.

 “They [the media] don’t necessarily cover a representative sample of whatever the issue is,” said Allen.

“They cover the most extreme things and the stuff that they think is the most interesting and attractive and by attractive I don’t mean good. I mean shocking, provocative, most likely to attract readers or viewers or listeners.”

 The struggle to report on sexual assault is not going away. The U.S. Department of Justice’s National Crime Victimization Survey indicated that a sexual assault takes place in the United States every two minutes. If the national media is only covering the stories most “attractive” to their audience, who is reporting on the countless other cases occurring everyday?

 Local newspapers, by nature, cover the stories that may not receive national attention, but nevertheless have a large impact on their respective communities. Loisel says the paper has a respective duty to cover every case passing through Hampshire Superior Court, including but not limited to those involving an alleged rape.

 As most papers now do, the Daily Hampshire Gazette has a policy in place that recognizes the importance of not identifying the victim while reporting on alleged rapes.

 “The public needs to know about brutal crimes, but in our reporting we must be as sensitive as possible to the victims,” states the newspaper’s policy.

 Another local paper, the Lowell Sun, has similar policies in place for reporters covering sexual crimes. Tom Zuppa, The Sun’s managing editor, acknowledges the inherent difficulty in reporting details that can be traumatic for victims.

 “It’s walking that fine line between making that victim relive the crime and helping the public understand that this is a heinous crime,” said Zuppa. “I wish we were perfect at this, it’s very difficult.”

 Although court coverage is an essential and institutional part of local news, Zuppa points out that the “daily meat grinder” of day-to-day trial coverage only provides a snapshot of the larger issue of sexual assault. Barbara Barnett, associate professor and associate dean of journalism and mass communications at the University of Kansas believes the media has failed to address these larger issues in the past.

 In her 2012 study of the infamous Duke lacrosse rape trial, she examined the role of the media and concluded that it was “one colossal failure to inform, interpret, and analyze.”

 In the case of the Duke trial, Barnett says the national media fell into a mob mentality of producing quantity over quality. In her study, Barnett addressed the tendency of the media to sensationalize, which has been seen in rape-related stories like the case in Steubenville.

 Allen points out in that in instances like Steubenville where there are many reporters involved, a narrative begins to emerge.

 “They’re all working basically on deadline. They’re very competitive with one another and there’s sort of a group mentality, or a pack mentality,” said Allen, “so they all end up reporting something in a similar way.”

 Although The Globe and most media have a policy of not identifying victims, this does not necessarily mean the media equally represents both sides of the story.

 “In the Steubenville rape case, you’ve got a Jane Doe who is a victim. She’s not named. She doesn’t have a voice, and on the other side are these boys who are photographed crying or dressed in nice clothes and are varsity athletes. So, the media naturally wrote about good lives turned bad and sometimes people get really offended by that,” Allen said.

 Does the national media need to re-evaluate the way they cover sexual assault cases to avoid sensationalizing the narrative of sensitive cases? Media organizations are often held to a standard of public service and civic integrity – ideals that can and do get lost in the heat of news coverage.

 Loisel notes that there is not one big-picture solution or blanket answer when it comes to covering rapes or sexual crimes. Rather, each journalist is left the task of assessing each story as it comes in a professional manner.

 “There’s no formula and there’s no policy that can cover everything,” said Loisel, “You have to just bring your brain and your sensitivities to every story.

Christina Gregg and Michelle Woodward can be reached via email at [email protected] and  [email protected] 

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