An Agenda for Teaching News Coverage of Rape
Byerly, Carolyn M., The Journalism Educator
One of the most powerful consequences of the feminist movement these last two decades is a redefinition of rape and the about-face this has brought in social institutions' treatment of rape victims. The news media also have increased their attention to rape issues and victims, but the quality of the reporting has been uneven. This suggests the need for academic journalism programs to refine the ways they prepare journalism students to cover sexual assault.
The purpose of this essay is to explore the issues and problems that have emerged in news reporting of rape and to propose an approach to improving journalism training on rape-related issues. I will also evaluate the adequacy of journalism texts and other materials in relationship to the teaching of these issues.
Teachers, like reporters, do not arrive at their daily work desks unaffected by who they are and what they know. My own views of sexual assault and how it is reported are greatly shaped by my association with the feminist anti-rape movement beginning in 1977, when I took time out of a career in journalism and public relations to manage first a community rape-crisis center and then a combined women's shelter and rape-crisis service in Washington state. A major aspect of these services was to raise public awareness and understanding of sexual assault. Toward these ends, our center made routine efforts to generate informed news stories by the local radios station and newspapers. Like other social movements (Kielbowicz and Scherer 1986), we needed the mainstream media to communicate new messages about sexual assault, as well as to tell the stories of victims (i.e., the recently harmed) and survivors (i.e., those who had lived through and come to an analysis of their experience).
Events, such as an annual "Rape Awareness Week," and "Take Back the Night" marches, and press releases on the number of clients we served, police arrests and prosecution rates formed the basis for regular media contact. We also put the local criminal justice system's poor response to sexual-assault crimes on public display for the first time, thus giving reporters a new story line. From time to time, our staff facilitated reporter-client interviews, and we responded to press requests for comment on particular criminal cases.
These important "news interventions" laid the foundation for increasingly regular and better-informed news stories on sexual assault. Movement leaders believed that better reporting was largely responsible for a positive shift in public support for rape victims' rights being lobbied by rape-crisis centers. The Washington state legislature passed new laws establishing a statewide office for sexual. assault services in 1979, extended the statute on child sexual abuse reporting in 1981, and, after several years f failed attempts, removed the marital exclusion from the state rape law in 1982. Public support for this last effort surged dramatically after one savvy female reporter from a major Seattle television station included in her evening newscast footage of a veteran state senator standing on the Senate floor asking: "Well, if you can't rape your own wife, who can you rape?"
In the editorial journalism and media-theory classes that I presently teach, I emphasize the importance of being well versed in the issues raised by contemporary social movements. A reporter's personal and professional knowledge plays an important role in the development of news (Hall 1980); With regard to sexual assault, this means that journalism educators should understand why:
[T]he press must stop being afraid of feminism. At the moment, the mainstream press is so unwilling to consult feminist sources that it has effectively crippled its chance of covering sex crimes properly, for it is in the fields of feminist sociology, medicine, and anthropology that an understanding of these crimes lies ... Rape cannot be understood without mentioning the role of women and the way men are trained to see them as objects of prey . …