Historic Highlights: Media Coverage of Sexual Assault Reflects a Changing Culture
If you think the media does a poor job covering sexual violence today, check out how it was done 45 years ago, when BARCC was founded. Few media outlets wrote about sexual assault and when they did, the language is rudimentary and lacks nuance—a direct reflection of the fact that up until the rape crisis center movement of the 1970s, U.S. society had yet to grapple in a meaningful way with an epidemic of sexual violence that we are still living with today.
The Boston Globe’s coverage of BARCC’s opening consists of six short paragraphs devoid of context, statistics, survivor stories, or even quotes from the founders. The piece assumes that the only people in need of services are women.
Fortunately, as survivors and advocates broke the silence surrounding sexual violence and educated the public, law enforcement, policy makers, and the media on the issue, our vocabulary expanded and made its way to the mainstream. Now, major media outlets consider nuances like when to use the term “survivor” rather than “victim.” Journalism watchdogs and other stakeholders have created resources to aid reporters in reporting on sexual violence. Colleges and universities publish vocabulary lists to contextualize their sexual assault response and prevention work, defining terms like “affirmative consent” and “bystander intervention” for the campus community. And social media is amplifying the unfiltered voices of hundreds of thousands of survivors through viral phenomena like the #MeToo, #TimesUp, and #BelieveSurvivors movements.
But change like this takes time, and we see evidence of that in coverage of sexual violence through the years. Consider this 1977 headline from a Boston Globe front page story:
Written early in her career by Judy Foreman, now the author of several books and a highly regarded medical specialist and science writer, the piece opens: “Rape isn’t supposed to happen to nice, quiet people who leave the city for the suburbs. Even more important, rape is not supposed to be talked about, even if it happens. That kind of hysteria is for city people.”
Buried deeper in the story was the less sensational—and more important—truth of the matter: “What is clearly happening is that the taboos surrounding rape and sexual assault, the shrouds of silence in which rape was hidden in suburbia, are falling away under the combined pressure of new state laws and the growing demand for rape crisis services.”
In July 1981, the biased and myth-laden media coverage of a case in which three Boston physicians were convicted of raping a nurse prompted BARCC to hold a press conference to point out problems with the reporting. Among other complaints, BARCC’s Aileen O’Neill blasted the media for identifying and sympathizing with the defendants while ignoring the “effects of rape and the trial experience on the woman,” according to Globe coverage of the press conference.
A week before the press conference, for example, the Globe had published a story headlined, “For 3 Doctors, Future Is Uncertain,” that detailed the financial, employment, and personal troubles that had befallen the convicted rapists, quoting their attorneys and family members—including a parent who portrayed his son as the victim: “The stigma, the emotion, the trauma, is something you can’t forget,” he said of his son’s rape conviction.
Of course, we still see this focus on the harm done to perpetrators when they are held to account for their actions. The most prominent recent example is probably that of Brock Turner, the former Stanford University student who was convicted of having raped a 23-year-old woman on the school’s campus in 2015. Turner’s father petitioned the court to sentence him to probation, writing, “His life will never be the one that he dreamed about and worked so hard to achieve. That is a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action out of his 20 plus years of life.” Although his crime was punishable by up to 14 years in prison, the judge in the case sentenced Turner to six months (he served just three), citing the “severe impact” that prison would have on Turner.
More favorable shifts in tone and balance were evident by the 1990s and 2000s, when media championed the privacy rights of sexual assault survivors who sought mental health treatment as part of their recovery. Coverage of the issue was prompted by a Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) ruling in favor of making survivors’ records available to defendants in a 1991 ruling and another 2000 decision prompted by BARCC’s refusal to hand over a rape victim’s records to her accuser.
With each ruling, in addition to reporting that focused primarily on how the ruling would affect sexual assault survivors as opposed to how it would serve defendants, media gave ample space to critics of the decisions.
After the 1991 ruling, Boston Globe columnist Bella English wrote a scathing critique that featured the voices of survivors and advocates, including then–BARCC Executive Director Sharon Vardatira. The “dubious ruling” robbed survivors of hard-won privacy rights, English wrote. “A defense attorney is not going to subpoena a victim’s psychiatric record to ‘determine if she had motive to lie,’ as the SJC naively believes. A defense attorney is looking for dirt, period, whether it’s relevant or not.”
After the ruling against BARCC in 2000, the Globe not only published an op-ed by then–BARCC Executive Director Charlene Allen, it also editorialized that the SJC had “unnecessarily lowered the bar for protecting” the privacy rights of rape victims against due-process claims by defendants. “What happens now?” asked the Globe. “To protect clients, crisis centers may keep even less detailed written records, so they have less to surrender—even though this threatens to hurt the continuity of care.”
Such concern for sexual assault survivors is a far cry from sympathetic coverage of convicted rapists. Though we still have far to go in dismantling a culture that enables sexual violence, it’s clear that the conversation about sexual assault has shifted in a direction more favorable to survivors.
Today, BARCC is a go-to source for reporters covering issues related to sexual violence. We regularly share our expertise in media outlets, including national publications like the Hill and Huffington Post, as well as local outlets like NBC Boston, WBUR, and of course, the Globe.
And though we need to do it less now than in the past, we speak up against unbalanced or misleading coverage when we see it—because continuing the conversation is how culture change happens.
This article first appeared on the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center (BARCC) website and is reprinted with permission from the staff at Boston Area Rape Crisis Center. The views and opinions expressed in guest blogs are those of the guest blog author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of CharityLogic and iCarol.