Online only article: The print media and rape

Sophia E. Shaw, Ellen Nye, Joanna Jamel & Heather D. Flowe ask whether the media function as disseminators of knowledge or misinformation?
Psychologists often find their research reported in the popular press. In this article, a recent case is discussed in which the media misrepresented the findings from a study that examined factors that increase a male’s propensity to commit sexual aggression. The media report, which was published online and in print, was not based on the findings of the research, but rather seemed to be based on rape stereotypes. This was unfortunate because the literature strongly suggests that stereotypical portrayals of rape in the media can negatively affect the criminal justice response to rape. We urge psychologists to exercise due caution in disseminating their findings to the media, and implore journalists to consider the wider societal implications of their media reports.

     The print media are a key disseminator of knowledge. With a large percentage of the population solely dependent on the media for facts, media reports can influence public opinion at large, and even impact criminal case outcomes. In particular, media representations of rape and sexual assault can affect the legal response to such cases on multiple levels. As we will argue in this article, media representations of rape can potentially influence whether a victim reports the assault to the police and whether legal officials, from the police to jurors, find the perpetrator culpable for the crime. Therefore, it is imperative that the media not only objectively report individual cases of rape, but also that they accurately represent research findings on rape and sexual assault.
     The British Psychological Society (BPS) recently issued a press release that announced the findings from a presentation that was to be given at the Division of Forensic Psychology's annual conference. The study, entitled “Personality characteristics, sexual behaviours and perceptions of women: Examining the factors that affect male propensity to commit acquaintance rape" (Shaw & Flowe, 2009), aimed to determine whether specific personality traits, sexual activities and aggressive behaviours were characteristic of men who would coerce a woman to engage in sexual activity against her will. The study also investigated male perceptions of a woman’s sexual availability as a function of the woman’s dress and behaviour to determine the extent to which these factors were associated with a man’s willingness to coerce a woman into having unwanted sexual activity. The main finding from the study was that men who engage in highly diverse sexual activities are more likely than their counterparts to coerce a woman into sexual acts against her will.
Based on the BPS press release, The Daily Telegraph issued an article, both in print and online. However, the media report came from an altogether different angle to that of both the BPS press release and the original study—The Telegraph headline stated ‘Scientists say women who drink alcohol, wear short skirts and are outgoing are more likely to be raped’. The results described in the headline were contrary to the study’s findings.
     The focus of the study, and the attendant BPS press release, was on male behaviours and personality characteristics, a point which was not mentioned in the Telegraph’s report. The research utilized a technique known as the ‘participant choice’ method (Flowe, Ebbesen, & Putcha-Bhagavatula, 2007), whereby a participant repeatedly responds to a social encounter that is depicted in a scenario as it unfolds. The participant is given a choice to either remain in the encounter being described, or to opt out. In the current study, a between subjects design was used to manipulate the variables of interest: The woman portrayed in the scenario was either sober or intoxicated, either flirtatious or not, either more or less sexually experienced, and either dressed in a sexually provocative manner or conservatively, which was manipulated via a photograph of her that was included with the scenario. The aim was to examine how these factors affected the man’s behaviour toward the woman in the hypothetical scenario.
     Men who participated in the study were asked to imagine themselves in an encounter with the woman described. As they interacted with her in the hypothetical situation, they made a series of choices regarding whether they wanted to remain in the situation with her. If the man remained in the situation long enough, consensual sexual contact between the woman and the male participant began to take place. Eventually, the woman would state that she was uncomfortable and did not want to go any further with him sexually. The male participant was then given a choice to either remain in the encounter and continue making sexual advances or opt out of the situation. If the participant remained in the hypothetical encounter until the very end, nonconsensual sexual intercourse was described. Importantly, not a single participant remained in the encounter until the end; therefore, none of the participants committed a hypothetical rape. However, 20% of participants remained in the scenario long enough for other forms of nonconsensual sexual activity to take place. In other words, the hypothetical sexual behaviour that took place in the scenario could be legally defined as ‘sexual assault’.
     Participants also completed self-report questionnaires which measured their sexual history, use of aggression to solve interpersonal problems, and personality traits. The research found that men with extensive sexual histories engaged in more sexual contact with the woman in the scenario, even when she indicated that she did not wish to continue engaging in the sexual activity. In addition, a main effect of alcohol intoxication was found, such that men chose to opt out of the situation much sooner if the woman was intoxicated. Note that the direction of the alcohol effect is opposite to that reported by the Telegraph. No effects were found for the woman’s dress or her flirtatiousness on men’s self-reported likelihood of coercing a woman into sexual activity. The woman’s sexual experience is beginning to emerge as a significant factor (data are still being collected to investigate this possibility), with men engaging in more sexual activity with the woman in the scenario if she was described as highly sexually experienced.
     Interestingly, the focus of the Telegraph article was on the behaviour of the hypothetical woman, rather than on the behaviour of the male participants who took part in the study. Perhaps the so-called “spin” of the Telegraph’s article provides an indication of a more systemic problem, whereby people have a tendency to scrutinize the victim’s behaviour to determine whether the victim precipitated the attack. In what follows, we briefly review the literature on stereotypical perceptions of rape and the relationship between stereotypical portrayals of rape in the media and the criminal justice response to rape. Our intention in so doing is to increase awareness of the connection between the media and public reactions to rape, and to encourage journalists to consider the wider societal implications of their media reports.
     Whilst it is recognised that emotive headlines capture the public’s attention and thereby add to the commercial value of a newspaper, there needs to be some accountability regarding the possible damage this type of reporting may inadvertently cause with respect to public reactions to rape victims. For example, historically there have been pervasive media reports that blame the victim of rape (see Benedict, 1992), which may account for the underreporting of rape to the police and the low conviction rate of 5.7% in cases that do reach the trial stage (Walker, Kershaw, & Nicholas, 2006). The public rely on the print media to fill the gaps in their experiential knowledge. Newspaper articles that frame rape victims’ behaviour in a negative manner may reinforce rape myths and fuel public misconceptions of sex crimes, which in turn may have a negative consequences for a victim’s self-conceptions of his or her experience and the criminal justice’s response to sex crimes.

The Effects of Stereotypic Representations of Rape on Rape Perceptions
     Rape myths, which are widely believed but untrue beliefs about rape and sexual assault, serve to downplay the severity of the offense or suggest that the event never occurred (Brownmiller, 1975; Burt, 1980). Researchers have argued that the word “myth,” which implies a helpful method of explaining something abstract with a certain degree of historical truth, should be replaced with the word “stereotype,” as this word more correctly implies a socially constructed belief with no historical grounding which could hinder accurate understanding (Norton & Grant, 2008). Henceforward, “rape myth” will be replaced with the phrase “rape stereotype,” although it must be noted that the majority of the research done on these attitudes has employed the former terminology.
     Research has document numerous rape stereotypes, but all serve to discount both the victim and the attack. Stereotypes fall into three broad categories: the woman is to blame, because she is either lying about the attack to begin with, or she asked for it, and/or deserved it (e.g., she was provocatively dressed, she engaged in flirtatious behaviour); the man cannot be blamed because he not the kind of person that would rape somebody; and the man should be excused of blame because rape is a trivial event (Franiuk et al., 2008). Examples of these stereotypes include, among others, women are raped only by strangers, women are raped only in deserted public locations, “real rape” involves physical injury to the victim, or many women fabricate rape stories to seek attention or revenge, (Brownmiller, 1975; Ward, 1995). Most, if not all, of these “facts” have scientific evidence directly contradicting them. To illustrate, although the classic stereotype of a rape involves a woman who is physically beaten into submission and raped by a stranger in a deserted public place, 72% of rapes in the UK are committed by an acquaintance or intimate of the victim, 74% take place indoors, such as the victim or attacker’s home, and nearly half involve no additional physical injury beyond the rape itself (Muir, 2003). Unfortunately, even though these statistics serve to refute the classic stereotype of “real rape”, rape stereotypes continue to negatively impact victims and the prosecution of the crime. As will be discussed in the subsequent section, the victim is
less likely to view the attack against her as a criminal behaviour if her experience is not in keeping with the classic stereotype of rape. Consequently, victims will often not report rape to the police. If victims do report, the court will tend to discount the claim if the victim’s behaviour is not in keeping with the stereotypic behaviour of a “true” rape victim. Consequently, cases that are successfully prosecuted tend to conform to the classic stereotype of rape, which serves to reinforce the public’s belief in the classic stereotype of rape (LaFree, 1989).
     Rape stereotypes seem to stem from a belief in a “just-world” (Franiuk, Seefelt, & Vandello, 2008), which is a view that people get what they deserve; if something bad happens to a person, that individual must have deserved it in some way (Lerner, 1980). This way of thinking serves almost as a safety net for the population: “good” women can feel safe, and “good” men can rest assured that they would never commit such an act (Lonsway & Fitzgerald, 1994, 1995). Such stereotypes maintain society’s sense of invulnerability.

Rape Stereotypes and the Media
     Print media portrayals of rape that are not representative in the aggregate of the circumstances in which rape typically occurs may do little more than reinforce stereotypical notions of what constitutes “real rape.” The types of rape reported in the media tend to be those that have features that are in keeping with the classic stereotype of rape (Caringella-MacDonald 1998; Franiuk, Seefelt, & Vandello, 2008; Franiuk, Seefelt, Cepress, & Vandello, 2008; Gavey and Gow 2001; Korn & Efrat 2004; Los & Chamard 1997, Marhia, 2008). For example, 54.4% of media reports described attacks committed by strangers and 54.4% of the media-reported rapes were committed in public places (Marhia, 2008).  As previously mentioned, however, most often the victim knows the attacker, and the incident takes place indoors, such as inside the victim’s home.  
     Media stories may also be presented in such a way as to suggest that the victim precipitated the attack or is making a false allegation (Cuklanz, 2000). The infamous Kobe Bryant sexual assault case that occurred in the United States is illustrative in this regard. In 2003, a young woman filed a sexual assault complaint against Bryant, who is a National Basketball Association player. Because of Bryant’s popularity, the case was widely covered by the media for the duration of the trial, which concluded when the charges against Bryant were dropped by prosecutors after the alleged victim refused to testify. A study of the Bryant sexual assault case systematically examined newspaper headlines of major news companies and discovered that 10% of the headlines contained one or more rape stereotypes, generally implying that the alleged victim was lying or that she asked for it (Franiuk, Seefelt, & Vandello, 2008). Headlines were more likely to use the term “accuser” in lieu of “alleged victim,” a term which refocused attention from the defendant’s behaviour to the victim’s behaviour, effectively reversing their roles. Moreover, males were less likely to think that Bryant was guilty after they had been exposed to such headlines.
     Stereotypical notions of rape have been found to negatively impact rape prosecution. If the alleged victim has a reputation for being promiscuous, uses drugs or alcohol, or willingly enters the residence of the accused, conviction is less likely (LaFree, Reskin, & Visher, 1985; LaFree, 1989; Stanko, 1982).  Moreover, characteristics of the dating situation and the sexual behaviour of the victim affect the odds that people will view the offender as culpable.  People are less likely to hold the perpetrator accountable for his actions if the victim behaves flirtatiously with the perpetrator prior to the attack (Kanin, Jackson, & Levine, 1987), if the victim is sexually experienced (Calhoun, Selby, & Warring, 1976; Cann, Calhoun, & Selby, 1979; Johnson, Jackson, Gatto, & Nowak, 1995; L’Armand & Pepitone, 1982), and if the victim and perpetrator have engaged in consensual sexual intercourse in the past (Monson et al., 2000).  Women are also less likely to report rape under these circumstances (Flowe, Ebbesen, & Putcha-Bhagavatula, 2007). The negative portrayal of both male (Scarce, 1997) and female rape victims in the press (see Marhia, 2008) may have an adverse impact on whether such crimes are subsequently reported to the police (Soothill & Walby, 1991).
     The media has the power to positively influence public opinion in a manner that can encourage victims to report rape. Greer (2003) noted that there has been a substantial reduction in the use of stranger-danger terminology regarding female rape articles in the dailies between 1985 and 1997. Coinciding with this reduction in stereotypical portrayals of rape by the media, female rape victims in recent years have been reporting acquaintance rape to the police at an increasing rate (Marhia, 2008).  It is imperative that the media continue to portray rape in a representative light because so doing may encourage additional victims to come forward.

     With so much of the population dependant on the media for both the news of the day and general factual knowledge, both researchers and journalists must take extreme care to report findings accurately. When it comes to a sensitive and potentially inflammatory topic such as rape, some journalists seem to seek to create the biggest splash, which can often come at the expense of the truth. However, they, like researchers, have a responsibility beyond simply drawing attention to their writings; they must maintain their integrity by reporting facts correctly. The carefully articulated BPS press release of Shaw and Flowe’s (2009) findings sought to fulfil this responsibility by informing the public of new findings. Unfortunately, the Telegraph ignored the real findings of the study, choosing instead to write an inflammatory and entirely inaccurate article that distorted the facts and methods used, thereby perpetuating the very stereotypes that the researchers sought to unravel. After a long correspondence with the researchers of the study and the BPS, The Telegraph eventually retracted their article and apologised; however, one has to wonder how much damage had already been done by the time the article was removed from the Telegraph’s website.
     If the media is to report on rape research, they have a responsibility to report findings accurately, particularly when reporting on such sensitive topics as rape. Beyond this, they must be aware of the media’s tremendous impact on public opinion, and take that knowledge into account when addressing topics such as rape and sexual assault, which have been misunderstood and stereotyped for far too long.
- Sophia E. Shaw, Ellen Nye, Joanna Jamel, & Heather D. Flowe

University of Leicester

School of Psychology, Forensic Section


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