Privacy, Rape and the Media

By: Tonya B. Lewis

Sara Stone, Ph.D., interim chair of the journalism, public relations and new media department spoke to my Theory of Mass Communication class today and delved into privacy issues, ethics and the media using examples of various rape cases in the United States and India.

The Media’s Responsibility in Covering Rape Cases
As part of Dr. Stone’s facilitated discussion, she provided several articles for us to review. A quote from one editorial said:

Unlike in India, [U.S.] media is not talking about the ‘why.’ Why are there systems in place that allow rape to be committed over and over again in this country? Why are boys raised to think that rape with an unconscious woman can possibly be considered sex?”

Dr. Stone poised a provocative question: Is it true that American boys are raised this way?

To which (each in our own way), we vehemently replied, “No!” But, the class admitted that a mob mentality coupled with alcohol and immaturity can create a volatile mix.

Protestors create signs advocating for the end of violence against women in New Delhi, India.

Protestors create signs advocating for the end of violence against women in New Delhi, India.

One article we read provided several tips to journalists covering rape cases that I found very poignant. Senior faculty member at Poynter Al Tompkins quoted Poytner’s Kelly McBride who advised journalists to “use clear language when reporting on a rape” as to avoid “sanitizing the language” by treating victims as “actors.” Tompkins writes, “We say, for instance, that a young girl ‘performed an oral sex act,’ rather than: ‘He forced his genitals into her mouth.'” In Tompkins example, the first description makes it sound as if the victim is a willing participant who chose to act or perform versus being forced into an act against her will.

I found this nugget of information from McBride to be one of the most important factors for journalists to consider when reporting on rape cases. We tend to prefer euphemism to harsh truths, and I think that unintentionally it helps to foster and cultivate a rape culture that send the message that rape isn’t that bad, especially if it wasn’t a “violent” rape. It’s not that I want the horrid details of a rape laid out in black-and-white on the front page of the news. I just want rape to be referred to properly and not with some watered down language such as assault, “digital penetration,” sex without consent, or sexual intercourse.

McBride also warns journalists against victim blaming, providing “salacious details about sexual assaults” and describing non-consensual sex as rape.

Protesters, who did not want to be identified, hold signs outside of the Jefferson County Justice Center and Jail in Steubenville, Ohio, on Wednesday, March 13, 2013.  About 20 other demonstrators stood outside the justice center with signs and masks protesting the rape trial of Trent Mays, 17, and Ma'lik Richmond, 16, accused of of raping a 16-year-old West Virginia girl in August of 2012. (AP Photo/The Plain Dealer, Lisa DeJong)

Protesters, who did not want to be identified, hold signs outside of the Jefferson County Justice Center and Jail in Steubenville, Ohio, on Wednesday, March 13, 2013. About 20 other demonstrators stood outside the justice center with signs and masks protesting the rape trial of Trent Mays, 17, and Ma’lik Richmond, 16, accused of of raping a 16-year-old West Virginia girl in August of 2012. (AP Photo/The Plain Dealer, Lisa DeJong)

Ethics and Privacy
In this day in age with power of social media, Dr. Stone contends that there is no such thing as privacy anymore, and I tend to agree. On a whim, people can take information and pictures and share it quickly and publicly. After all, it was videos and images shared on social media that alerted the Steubenville victim and her parents of her rape, which helped them have evidence to present to police.

New Delhi vs. Steubenville
In a Poynter article titled, “Why journalists are covering rapes differently in New Delhi & Steubenville,” Mallary Jean Tenore examines our outrage over the vicious attack against a young woman in New Delhi juxtaposed against our sympathizing with the attackers of the 16-year-old girl in Steubenville. Tenore also examines the portrayal of the victims. The woman in New Delhi was humanized and her narrative included “what her hopes and aspirations were, what she had accomplished at a young age, and how hard she worked to pay for her education.” The media coverage of the Ohio teen focused on what happened to her and “less on who she is as a person.”

Both cases engendered a lively discussion from the class. Each of us drawing on our experiences and upbringing to help us fathom how such acts could not only occur, but how they were–at times–improperly presented and framed in the media.

Food for Thought
As our class moves forward on our research on the Steubenville case, I find myself feeling a myriad of emotions where my journalistic training conflicts with my feminist views and my motherly concerns. As a journalist, you strive for objectivity. But, how can you remain objective on an issue that can cut so deeply as rape? How can I not want to rail–in word and deed–against rapists and a culture that helps foster them? How can I have sympathy, empathy and compassion for victims–and even their attackers at the same time?

I think this Steubenville case is going to cause me to confront all of those feelings and more. Stay tuned…

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