THE BLOG

The Media Is Reporting Rape Stories All Wrong

There is no excuse.

16/06/2016 9:12 AM AEST | Updated July 15, 2016 12:54
ASSOCIATED PRESS
Brock Turner received a six-month prison sentence.

The decision by US internet site Buzzfeed to publish the Victim Impact Statement of a rape victim at Stanford University has provided a powerful 12-page account into the experiences and effect of sexual assault.

It is a confronting statement that has gone global. In the first four days, more than 9 million people read the statement which was printed in full on Buzzfeed and then read in full, for half an hour, on CNN. At the time of writing, more than 17 million had read it.

Also capturing media attention were the excuses offered for the behaviour of the perpetrator, Brock Turner, and the arguments as to why he should not be penalised for his crime even though he was convicted of three felonies.

Turner's father suggested his son should not have his life ruined for "20 minutes of action". These arguments seemed to sway Judge Aaron Persky who sentenced Turner to six months jail (now three months), instead of the six years requested by prosecutors. The Judge is now the subject of a Recall petition.

The two men who intervened to save the victim are also in the media limelight. Cycling past, they saw the rapist with his unconscious victim. They helped her, and detained him, until police arrived.

This case has highlighted starkly the way society perceives, and the way the media portray, the victim and perpetrator.

As commentator Clementine Ford quoted in a tweet, "I see a pattern emerging in rape culture that suggests women have a past, while men have a potential".

This Stanford case shows positively the role of the media in influencing the way we view violence against women and how we change a culture in which the victim is often blamed.

The way media construct stories can indirectly attribute blame and/or assign responsibility for violence against women. This is known as victim-blaming.

We know that to prevent violence against women, we must change the attitudes and behaviours across the community that condone or support it.

People who support gender inequality and sexism are more likely to hold attitudes that condone or excuse violence against women.

Research shows one barrier to social change is the way the media sustains the misconception that women are responsible for men's use of violence and that women can play a role in prevention by modifying their own behavior.

Victim-blaming is especially rife in the case of sexual assault. How this is reflected and represented in the media has a huge impact on the views we have about the victims and perpetrators of such crimes.

Our Watch commissioned a national study in Australia on Media Representations of Violence Against Women. It examined the nature of reporting about violence against women in 2016.

It shows nearly one in six news reports imply the victim is to blame.

Of those reports, 14.5 percent included information about the behaviour of women. 16 percent of the reports about sexual assault and rape implied women had placed themselves at risk.

Victim-blaming takes myriad forms. In some media, there were references to the victim as having been drinking or flirting, or that she went home with the perpetrator or that she was out on her own.

14.8 percent of the news reports included information to exonerate or excuse men.

Reporting on the Stanford case is an example of where there is a focus on perpetrator accountability and not victim-blaming.

When it came to portrayal of the perpetrator in the media, 14.8 percent of news items framed a violent incident in terms of extenuating or mitigating circumstances. The most common references mentioned that the perpetrator had been drinking and/or using drugs, and/or that the incident was motivated by jealousy or revenge (explicitly or implied), or that he "snapped" or "lost control".

In a small number of items, violent behaviour was described as "out of character" or the story contained references to the perpetrators' positive personality traits, including that he was "friendly", "a hard worker" or "a good guy".

The research shows the victim's perspective is often overlooked and victim impact statements get minimal attention.

An analysis of the rape trial of Luke Lazarus last year in NSW highlights the disproportionate attention given to the perpetrator. Prominence was given to his claims that his life was "completely destroyed".

This is as opposed to the harrowing victim statement in the Brock Turner case, in which she described how she "sat in the bath for days after the attack" and, two years after the attack, she "cried so hard that she could not breathe".

Often victims are anonymous for understandable reasons, but their stories should not be drowned out by the justifications and excuses of their perpetrators.

Reporting of the Stanford statement through the media has provided an insight into one survivor's perspective.

I hope this prompts a cultural shift in the way the media report on this story.

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Nominations have just opened for the Our Watch Award for excellence in journalism to end violence against women Administered by the Walkley Foundation, opened for entries earlier this week. Visit www.walkleys.com

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