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Do we cover rape more when we think women lie?

Sexism in media gives women one more reason to stay silent

Sexism in media gives women one more reason to stay silent.

Which story is more important to you:  A woman alleging that she is the victim of a gang rape at a prestigious university? Or the fact that the reporter covering that story failed by any journalistic standard?

We’re talking, of course, about the blockbuster Rolling Stone piece about rape at the University of Virginia, whose central claim – that a student going by the name "Jackie" was gang raped by seven men in a fraternity in 2012 – has crumbled under scrutiny. Many news organizations ignored the article’s explosive allegations about rape culture on campuses but have pounced on the magazine’s serious journalistic failures.

MSNBC asked the progressive watchdog group Media Matters to analyze cable news coverage of Rolling Stone’s initial reporting and its subsequent retraction of the story. According to the group’s analysis, of the cable news shows that covered the Rolling Stone allegations, 57% only covered the story after Rolling Stone issued its apology. In other words, most shows only found the story of a gang rape worthy of coverage when it turned into a media scandal. Of shows covering the Rolling Stone rape allegations, 31% covered the alleged rape before and after the report’s retraction and 12% that reported on the story before it was retracted.

Of the three major cable news outlets, Fox News led the way in portraying the story as a failure by Rolling Stone. There were shows on all three cable networks that covered the story only after the media controversy erupted including four shows on MSNBC, but 70% of the shows that only covered the story after Rolling Stone’s retraction were on Fox. Media Matters, the organization that conducted the analysis based on a search of Nexis and TV Eyes, an internal closed captioning service, is frequently critical of Fox News.  

Why is there more interest in Rolling Stone’s screw-up than in the toxic mix of entitlement, alcohol, and zero accountability that have led to one in five women being raped during her college years? Why is it so important that many cable shows felt the need to correct the record when they’d never been ON the record in the first place? 

Full disclosure: The show I co-host, "The Cycle," hasn’t covered the Rolling Stone story either before or after the retraction. But on my web show, "Krystal Clear," we had an in-depth discussion of the initial allegations but have not yet covered the retraction. 

The fact that Rolling Stone messed up their reporting of Jackie’s story changes nothing about the overall problem of rape in this country. We know, for example, that only about 35% of women who are raped actually report the crime to the police. We know that men accused of rape are less likely than those accused of other crimes to be found guilty. We know that men in fraternities are three times more likely to rape than men who are not in fraternities. And we know that UVA — where I went to college — has been and continues to be under federal investigation for its handling of rape cases. The university has expelled 183 people for cheating on tests or similar honor code violations since 1998, but has expelled precisely zero people for rape (even as at least some men have actually admitted to having committed rape).

The president of UVA, Teresa Sullivan, has vowed to move forward aggressively to improve the handling of rape on campus despite Rolling Stone’s retraction of its story. And with respect to Jackie specifically, her freshman suite-mate remains convinced that something deeply traumatic happened to Jackie around the time of the alleged rape and wrote recently that “Jackie’s story is not a hoax.” Another friend told The Washington Post, “If she was acting on the night of Sept. 28, 2012, then she deserves an Oscar.” As others have also pointed out, it would not be unusual for someone who has dealt with such a trauma to have their facts jumbled. 

What does it mean that more than half of all cable news shows that covered the Rolling Stone story covered the retraction even though they never covered the initial story itself? The media does love to shine a light on the scandals and screw ups of others in the media.  And since Rolling Stone is a liberal leaning publication, I’m sure conservative outlets took particular delight in pointing out its failings.

But there’s another reason why I suspect these shows decided they were only interested once the alleged victim’s story was called into question. While we don’t know what happened to Jackie and probably never will, the clouding of her tale confirms the many people’s that women lie about being raped.

They lie, this thinking goes, because they want attention, or maybe because they got mad at their boyfriend and want revenge. Women making allegations of rape are too often distrusted, and even those who do come forward and press criminal charges they are often not believed as the low rates of conviction for accused rapists can attest.

Sometimes women’s claims are ignored altogether: A recent report out of New Orleans found that detectives there only investigated 14% of alleged sex crimes.

The cable shows that reported only Rolling Stone’s retraction probably did so because the flaws in Jackie’s story confirm many biases. Jackie is being made an example to all women who would dare share their story and dare to try to change campus rape culture where privilege means that you can do as you please. The truth is that false rape allegations are quite rare. Does it look to you like Jackie is having a good time right now?

I’m not saying that all of the cable news programs that covered the story only after the media controversy deliberately ignored Jackie’s story while gleefully jumping on Rolling Stone’s retraction. It is far more likely they made their coverage decisions based on what they suspect their audience wants, what’s bubbling on social media, and what’s getting clicks online. In that way the coverage is more emblematic of a cultural problem feeding into a media problem.

When we can’t be bothered to advocate for women who have the courage to share their stories but seem to delight in shaming a woman whose story has been called into question we send an unmistakable message: Keep quiet or else. 

*Methodology: A search was run by Media Matters using Nexis, TV Eyes, an internal closed captioning service, and internal emails for mentions of "gang rape," "UVA," "Rolling Stone," "Virginia," or "sexual assault" on CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News between Nov. 19, the release date of the Rolling Stone article, and Dec. 9 at 11 p.m. Rolling Stone issued their apology on Dec.5.