University researcher finds correlation between media coverage and rape

Wednesday, October 10, 2018 - 4:47pm

Spaces with media outlets that use sexual assault victim-blaming language or include features that defend rape perpetrators report more cases of rape and fewer related arrests, a University of Michigan study found. Political Science Assistant Professor Yuri Zhukov helped lead the first big data analysis of newspapers from 2000 to 2013 regarding media’s portrayal of rape in the United States.

“We used the tone and content of local news reporting as a measure of local norms toward rape, and found that there are more reported instances of rape in U.S. counties where news coverage of sexual assault is particularly insensitive and dismissive,” Zhukov wrote in an email interview. “In such areas, police are also less likely to make rape-related arrests.”

Zhukov began the study when he was working on his Ph.D at Harvard University. Partnering with Harvard officials, he created a machine learning algorithm that read and categorized media reports of all kinds. During the media coverage analysis, however, the researchers came upon a report of an Ohio gang rape case and decided to apply their algorithm explicitly to rape coverage.

“We used natural language processing and machine learning to detect victim-blaming language and other types of content in over 300,000 newspaper articles,” Zhukov wrote. “We then used various statistical estimators to establish a correlation between such language and local sexual crime rates, and to exclude various alternative explanations for this relationship.”

Zhukov’s data correlates biased news coverage with an increase in rape reports and a decrease in police response. An obstacle in his research, however, is that most sexual assaults go unreported and an increase in rape statistics might also be connected with an increase of more victims coming forward or an increase in crime. Even in the aftermath of #MeToo, Zhukov claims his study disproves these uncertainties.

“Unless more victims are coming forward in the exact places where justice is most elusive, what we’re likely seeing is a genuine increase in rape,” Zhukov wrote.

At the University, sexual misconduct reports have risen steadily in the last four years, even as the national reporting rates hovers around 20 percent of survivors notifying authorities of sexual assault. This year, the number of reports received by the Office of Institutional Equity jumped by 27 percent

Zhukov said this research cannot determine news coverage causes rape because that goes beyond the scope of the data.

“The more plausible explanation –– consistent with previous research –– is that local news reporting reflects local norms toward sexual assault,” Zhukov wrote. “To victims, these norms might dictate how costly it is to come forward and seek justice. And where potential perpetrators believe that rape victims are unlikely to come forward, they may feel more impunity.”

Zhukov claims not covering rape stories does more harm because an increase in news stories regarding rape are associated with greater levels of police vigilance and victims coming forward. Zhukov said journalists should not avoid reporting sexual crimes but should be careful about which aspect of the incident is covered and whom are used as sources.

“Coverage of court proceedings sometimes feature victim-blaming language and implications of consent because such language often comes up during witness testimony and cross-examination,” Zhukov wrote. “This information may be newsworthy, but it is also not hard to see how such coverage might deter some victims from making accusations and going through the same ordeal themselves.”

An LSA junior who requested to remain anonymous said she believes the media has impacted herself and other survivors. She said the way the media blames survivors isn’t limited to specific areas, but does affect the culture surrounding reporting as a whole. 

“Often the media skews (rape culture) in a victim-blaming sense, which is harmful to the survivors and allow them to heal the way they need,” she said. “It’s ultimately extremely problematic and unfortunate that it’s portrayed in a certain manner, because people who are not educated on the subject then use the media as their education.”

The LSA junior is also glad more people are reporting cases, but said many women do not have a positive trial experience.

“The trial experience is currently not conducive to survivors, and then on top of having to go through the painful trial experience their desired outcome is not met,” she said. “Not punishing perpetrators for their actions further reinforces rape culture because you tell someone what they are doing is bad but they keep doing it anyway because nothing is going to happen to them if they do.”

The LSA junior currently volunteers through the Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center and works directly with other survivors. She works to provide tools for survivors to make the best of their lives after going through the trauma of sexual assault.

“A positive thing is that more survivors are banding together to bring sexual assault to the forefront in hopes that this culture will change,” she said. “It’s deeply unfortunate that it has not already.”

In an email interview, SAPAC Director Kaaren Williamsen said when sexual assault is in the media, more people reach out for help from law enforcement, SAPAC or a sexual assault hotline. Williamsen said the RAINN Sexual Assault Hotline and SAPAC have seen an increase in request for services over the last few years.

“I am glad that people are reaching out for assistance and we can all be a positive resource for survivors when we practice basic helpful skills – listen, believe, support and let the survivor take the steps that are right for them,” Williamsen wrote.