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Rape Culture: Do Journalists Help Perpetuate It?

by on November 4, 2014

With the video of a woman walking around NYC getting catcalled and the instagram “@ByeFelipe” that details what online dating is really like for women going viral in recent weeks, it got me thinking a lot about rape culture and the media’s role in it. I thought about CNN and their coverage of the Steubenville rape trial – which was widely criticized after the fact. In case you’re not familiar with it, a 16-year-old girl was unconscious and repeatedly raped and sexually assaulted at a party by two high school boys – later revealed to be members of a football team that was sort of the pride and joy of the town. The sexual assault was filmed and photographed, and later shared on Facebook, Twitter, and through text messages. Both officials of the high school that these teenagers attended, as well as higher ups in the football team’s coaching staff orchestrated a cover up as to reduce the changes of these two boys being convicted. It wasn’t until the hacker advocacy group Anonymous threatened to release the names of the two rapists that the incident was brought to light. Both boys received sentences in a juvenile detention center, with the possibility of staying there until they are 21. One of the rapists has already been released.

During CNN’s coverage of the trial, correspondent Poppy Harlow was criticized for the following statement: “It was incredibly emotional—incredibly difficult even for an outsider like me to watch what happened as these two young men that had such promising futures, star football players, very good students, literally watched as they believe their life fell apart.”

To me, this statement is a very roundabout way of perpetuating rape culture. Rather than make a statement on how the victim’s life has been irreversibly damaged and changed, Harlow decides to sympathize with the two rapists, saying their lives were falling apart. While it’s not directly saying that the victim’s rape was her own fault, Harlow’s primary concern seems to be the well-being of two kids who committed a crime. Rape is never, ever a mistake, and with the evidence backing up the fact that these boys didn’t feel any remorse for what they did (one sent a text message that read “I shoulda raped her since everyone thinks I did,”) the boys knew the validity of their crime and proceeded to commit it anyways.

My question is this: do journalists have any place expressing sympathy for sexual offenders, and does this help perpetuate rape culture? The victim in question was chastised for going forward with her assault and driven out of town. Shouldn’t we, as journalists, be informing the public of the severity of rape culture and doing our best to help victims and put a stop to victim-blaming, rape culture, etc? Is there any place for saying “Well she was raped, but A), B), C) about the offenders?” Rape is very rarely committed by a sketchy stranger on the street; it is most likely someone you know. When someone a victim knows has a commanding presence in their town, that makes coming forward with a rape accusation that much more terrifying – pair that with how rape culture is constantly telling victims it’s their fault, and that’s why most women don’t go forward. One code of ethics we follow is to minimize harm. Wouldn’t helping to stop rape culture be abiding by that code?


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One Comment
  1. I agree that as a journalist it is our job to minimize harm. I do not think that journalists should be showing sympathy for rapists, they should be informing the public what happened and the severity and horror of the crime. I don’t think the rape victim’s ID should be revealed, but it would be ethical for journalists to not make it seem like they are blaming the victim. It is horrible that Poppy Harlow would put so much sympathy out for the boys who did this terrible thing. Rape is not a matter to be taken lightly, and it is awful that women are blamed for it happening. Stopping rape culture would be abiding by the code we must follow as journalists because that minimizes harm to the culture we live in, and it could save many girls. Journalists should not be revealing their own feelings about what they are covering anyways, so it is unprofessional to say that you feel sympathy for someone who performed a horrible crime.

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