Theoretical Background and research questions/hypothesis: The issue of sexual violence in American society provokes a myriad of impassioned positions on how to approach the issue of rape and sexual assault, what to do about the problem, and how to curb its prevalence. The public health consequences of rape and sexual assault, however, often remain subordinate to more sensational ways of reporting on sexual violence. Rape and sexual assault have broad public health impacts that require cooperation among individuals, peers and partners, organizations, and communities. Press coverage plays a fundamental role in shaping perceptions about important social issues and the extent to which those issues are presented has community wide consequences. The purpose of this study is to examine how the American news media have presented the problem of sexual violence. More specifically, to answer the question: how well does the American news media present the problem of sexual violence as a public health issue?
Methods: A content analysis was performed and a two-step sampling strategy was used. First, a population of articles and transcripts, January 1, 2014 through March 1, 2015, from the New York Times, Washington Post, New York Daily News, New York Post, USA Today, and Los Angeles Times, and from NBC, CBS, ABC, CNN, MSNBC, and FOX News were gathered using criterion sampling. Second, a systematic sample was generated by including every fifth article in newspaper coverage and every third for broadcast transcripts. Each was qualitatively examined, coding for media outlet, date, and event. Articles were also analyzed to determine story subject, how journalists characterize victims and perpetrators, and sources used. The physical and mental health consequences of sexual violence, and prevention or treatment strategies were also assessed.
Results: News media overwhelmingly cover sexual violence as a criminal justice issue and characterize victims and perpetrators as accusers and the accused, tend to quote law enforcement, government and school officials, victims, and perpetrators rather than victim advocates, medical professionals, scholars, or specialized professionals. Few reports addressed the physical and mental health consequences of sexual violence or offered prevention strategies or treatment information.
Conclusions: Reporting on rape and sexual assault tends to propagate singular definitions of rape over others, depict victims and perpetrators in ways that are inconsistent with the realities of sexual violence, and ultimately undermines the role of bystander education and prevention programs aimed at curbing the incidence of sexual violence.
Implications for research and/or practice: Press coverage of sexual violence has the potential to influence how the public perceives the efforts of public health practitioners, the development of sexual violence prevention campaigns, and advocacy efforts to provide resources to victims and communities faced with the issue of sexual violence. Journalists should clarify the public health consequences of sexual violence, provide a substantive picture of sexual violence in society, and report on education and prevention programs that combat the biases and misunderstandings surrounding rape and sexual assault. Study findings can inform the development of strategies to engage with the media and work to improve journalistic coverage of sexual violence.