Resisting Change: Media Coverage of Sexual Violence Toward Women

For several decades, media reporters in the United States have struggled with reporting stories of sexual violence. At first, they often debated how to use quotes from sources who blamed the victim and whether the victim’s name should be used (Murtha, 2013). However, these days public opinion seems to be demanding fairer coverage beyond those two elements. For stories dealing with sexual violence, many would like to see the victim and rapists get equal, unbiased attention in stories. Recently they have voiced their discontent with what they see as unequal and biased coverage through social media, especially Twitter (Dermody, 2013).

When such controversy becomes widespread, as it most recently did after CNN’s allegedly flawed coverage of the Steubenville rape case in March 2013, media sometimes analyze and critique the coverage in question for a more general audience. This paper will compare media analysis of its own coverage of sexual violence toward women with scholarly research on that coverage. The results of this comparison will be important, because they may suggest a lingering negative bias against female victims and reflect how our society seems to be resisting various attempts to achieve complete equity among both sexes.


Media Analysis

All examples of media analysis were taken from critiques of CNN’s coverage of the Steubenville rape trial. After 17-year-old Trent Mays and 16-year-old Ma’lik Richmond, high school football players from Steubenville, Ohio, were found guilty of raping a 16-year-old girl, CNN anchor Candy Crowley’s question to correspondent Poppy Harlow started the backlash:

CROWLEY: “I cannot imagine how emotional the sentencing must have been…a 16-year-old, sobbing in court, regardless of what big football players they are, they still sound like 16-year-olds. What is the lasting effect of two young being guilty in juvenile court of rape essentially?

HARLOW: “I’ve never experienced anything like it, Candy. 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.” (qtd. in Dermody, 2013)

On top of that, instead of shifting attention toward the victim, Crowley asked an expert on the verdict’s “lasting effect on two young men” (Waxman, 2013). Shortly after, Twitter exploded with the general public’s reactions (Dermody, 2013). Many tweets expressed disgust at the apparent sympathy Crowley and Harlow had toward the boys and the lack of any mention of the victim, even one that would have kept her name unrevealed to the public (Dermody, 2013).

Journalists soon followed suit with their own critiques in news articles. Some cited the public’s social media activity and even online petitions demanding CNN apologize for its coverage of the trial (Goodale, 2013; Waxman, 2013). Virtually all focused on how this backlash would continue the discussion of how media report rape, especially in regards to interactivity with media audiences. However, especially in the case of mainstream, for-profit outlets, most of the critique was much more neutral and subtle than that of the public, preferring to quote experts who said the coverage was flawed and traditional journalistic standards were being sacrificed due to increasing pressure on the industry. For instance, Goodale’s (2013) article in the Christian Science Monitor used extensive quotes from an executive vice president of a crisis management firm, prestigious professors at journalism schools, and a former ABC and CBS newsman. Only in the reporter’s phrase “serious on-air missteps” (para. 4) do we detect a hint of direct criticism.

Similarly, in an effort to “balance” the coverage, quotes from experts who sought to explain the network’s choices behind the images and narrative were often included. In Goodale’s (2013) piece, for example, one expert said the cameras would be pointed toward the most compelling visuals no matter what due to newsroom budget cuts, regardless of a potential change in how the audience perceives the story. In this case, he said, the visuals predominantly included the two boys and their families. The Wrap’s Sharon Waxman (2013) even used a direct quote from a CNN executive saying how hurt and outraged Harlow was at the allegation that she slanted her coverage toward the rapists.

One notable exception to the rule of balance and masked neutrality was Kia Makarechi’s (2013) response for the Huffington Post. The Post, which is well known in journalism circles for emphasizing both of these qualities, let Makarechi suspect that CNN’s coverage in Steubenville was “curiously weighted” (para. 1). He went on to elaborate on other apparently offending parts of its coverage, such as the victim’s family allegedly being a visual and spoken afterthought compared to video and commentary on the rapists and their families. Another is Tara Murtha’s (2013) commentary for RH Reality Check, a mainstream but non-profit news source. In general, non-profit media were more likely to be outwardly critical of CNN. However, this piece was the only one to identify a past case of media coverage of rape and compare and contrast it to Steubenville.

Indeed, none of the news articles examined referenced mass communication theories. Only Murtha (2013) cited and quoted from scholarly research. She used quotes from Helen Benedict’s “landmark” 1993 book Virgin or Vamp: How the Press Covers Sex Crimes to argue that Benedict’s criticism of 24-hour cable news coverage of rape is just as applicable to today’s social media. Also, she used them to conclude that today’s coverage is just as likely to blame the female victim for being raped as thirty years ago. Although biased, the depth and breadth in this article are the farthest any of the media analyses came to matching those of scholarly work.

Curiously, however, even the mainstream articles showed hints of subtle bias against CNN in short, easy-to-ignore phrasing. Thus, it seems feasible to conclude that through agenda setting theory, average media consumers would subconsciously think more about biased mainstream media coverage of rape after reading them, no matter their opinion on the Steubenville case. Furthermore, if consumers also agreed that CNN’s coverage was biased, their opinion would likely intensify regardless of any “explanations” from experts, which would likely fuel the backlash even more.


Scholarly Research

Media coverage of sexual violence toward women has been the focus of a fair amount of scholarly research. In regards to this topic, scholars are much more critical than journalists. For instance, O’Hara (2012) claimed media coverage often indirectly labels female victims of rape as “virgins” or “whores,” and Barnett (2012) used similar terms—“innocent and victimized or as wanton and deserving” (p. 15). Scholars also argue that it often blames the rape on the victims, especially when the violence is reported as simply “having sex” (Kitzinger, 2004). Such language only reinforces dominant stereotypes of what we tend to call rape, with women “liking” the rape (Barnett, 2012).

Most important, scholars were incredibly specific as to how this concept works and why it’s so offensive. In the Duke University rape case where three white men’s lacrosse players from Duke allegedly raped a black woman—which was never proven in court and dismissed—journalists from various papers soon adopted the habit of portraying her as the antagonist without even investigating for evidence of what happened on the night she was raped (Barnett, 2012). Even the New York Times went so far as to call her “an unstable fabricator” (Barnett, 2012), citing her drug and alcohol use throughout her life and at the party where she was raped as evidence without focusing on the team members’ underage drinking. Her bipolar disorder and past sex life as a stripper were also widely reported (Barnett, 2012). Similarly, in a 2010 gang rape case in Cleveland, Texas, the Times said of the female victim, “she dressed older than her age, wearing makeup and fashions more appropriate to a woman in her 20s. She would hang out with teenage boys at a playground” (qtd. in O’Hara, 2012). In short, scholars claim that media coverage of these events tends to be based on just that—the events—rather than the underlying issue of rape, and thus comes off as sexist (Barnett, 2012; Kitzinger, 2004; O’Hara, 2012).

On a related note, scholars also generally agree that media coverage often dismisses female victims as untrustworthy (Barnett, 2012; Kitzinger, 2004). Without journalists offering explanations behind why rape happens and what victims have to endure as a result, the women come off to audiences as generally unstable, such as the bipolar black woman in the Duke case (Barnett, 2012). This means many female victims of rape are automatically viewed as guilty in O’Hara’s (2013) “whore” frame, especially if their previous actions include wearing revealing clothing or driving too fast and partying (Kitzinger, 2004). Because of a long-held dominant stereotype that black women have an almost unquenchable sex drive, they are more likely than white women to be portrayed within this frame (Barnett, 2012; Kitzinger; 2004, Marcel; 2013). If there are any exceptions who fit the innocent “virgin” role, they are more likely to be either seemingly defenseless elderly women or teenage girls on the verge of achieving womanhood, and usually must have a so-called good reputation (Kitzinger, 2004; Marcel, 2013; O’Hara, 2012). If they actually are virgins, so much the better (Barnett, 2012).

Even then, because of our society’s dominant culture favoring the voice of male reporters (Marcel, 2013), male defense attorneys, and even the male rapists (Barnett, 2012)—men are more likely to be quoted and have their opinions heard in stories. Because of this trend, some rapists fit into the “playboy” category, including Jeffrey Marsalis, whose habit of secretly drugging their drinks before raping women was justified because he just wanted to “have fun,” and because they made the decision to have the drink afterward (O’Hara, 2012). A male abuser not fitting into this paradigm is almost universally considered “sick” (Marcel, 2013), a “monster” (O’Hara, 2012), or a “beast” (Kitzinger, 2004), especially if he didn’t know the woman he raped beforehand (O’Hara, 2012). These labels separate him from the hidden-away cases of sexual violence against women whose attacker’s behavior apparently isn’t strong enough to earn him the encompassing label of “pedophile” (Kitzinger, 2004). Again, due to another long-lasting racist stereotype, black men are more likely to be potrayed in this category because they have historically been considered hypersexualized by the dominant culture (Barnett, 2012).

Taking all of these factors into consideration, it isn’t surprising that scholars argue that media coverage of these cases often focuses on the law by itself as the end-all, be-all solution (Barnett, 2012; Kitzinger, 2004; O’Hara, 2012). Because of seemingly extreme cases of rape getting much more media coverage than “normal” cases and constant labeling of the victim and her rapist as “others,” the question of how to combat rape in our society slips under the radar (Kitzinger, 2004). Audiences are left to sort out what kind of justice must prevail, and regardless of the outcome, too often it seems reporters brush the story’s intricate details off afterwards and move on to covering yet another radical example of rape.

In addition to this larger, somewhat overlapping theoretical framework, some scholars found that stories of men raping women were sometimes overlooked in favor of men raping young boys. The Boston Globe, for instance, provided Pulitzer-winning coverage on Catholic priests labeled as gay carrying out this abuse in 2002, but also neglected to provide any sort of coverage on priests raping girls and women, unlike plenty of popular, well-known mainstream news sources (Marcel, 2013). This seems to be due to a lingering societal belief that being non-heterosexual is either unnatural or just plain novel—after all, the rape of women by men is essentially never labeled heterosexual (Kitzinger, 2004, Marcel, 2013). Considering that just 43 percent of rapes are reported (Barnett, 2012), it could suggest another reason why women are reluctant to give the police a phone call.

However, it is important to remember that most scholars don’t put all of the blame solely on the media industry and its reporters. Kitzinger (2004), for example, acknowledged that popular assumptions about rape in our society are also a factor, as well as “deadlines, news values, and issues such as format constraints. One clear problem is also the lack in newsrooms of sexual violence specialists” (p. 33). Carll (2003) also cited arguably more blatant societal sexism in similar cases around the world. One of those instances occurred in 2000 when the lawyers of Ramjattan, a Trinidad woman, didn’t mention that her killing her husband in retaliation for his rapings and beatings was justified, simply because the Caribbean silently ignored domestic violence as a problem. Carll also concluded with a list of solutions that could combat all of the discrepancies against female victims of rape that scholars cite, including increased promotion and coverage of public policy to combat domestic violence, follow-up coverage of the violence in media messages, and, she hopes, more women in leading management positions in the media industry.


Analysis and Comparisons

Such solutions were lacking in media’s analysis of their own coverage of the Steubenville rape case. As the scholars concluded, journalists’ analyses largely focused on the events behind the case and the ensuing backlash, not how coverage of the trial tied into the underlying question of how to stop rape in the United States. Their almost universal lack of references to previous stories about media coverage of rape contributed to this trend. Indeed, there were almost no other previously reported examples of offending, sexist language or media coverage against female victims of rape, direct or indirect. Additional points of emphasis from journalists were continuing the discussion on media coverage of rape and relevant business framework, but aside from rhetorical statements suggesting and justifying that rape coverage would be a relevant and necessary topic of discussion, they said virtually nothing else on those subjects.

For both of these reasons, journalists largely missed the scholarly framework suggesting potential explanations for media’s flawed coverage of sexual violence against women. This means there was nothing said about how black people are unfairly exploited, men’s voices being dominant, or the law seen as the ultimate solution to rape cases in the for-profit analyses. As stated previously, the one exception to many of these norms is Murtha’s (2013) article for a non-profit news source. Furthermore, there are almost no mentions of the stereotypical frames regarding male rapists and female victims. This may be because the controversy was over CNN’s coverage of the Steubenville rapists instead of the victim, which seems to go against the norm of “virgin” and “whore” frames being perpetuated more than anything else. The fact that the media industry is predominantly male across the board could also explain several of these patterns.

News principles the media industry demands journalists follow may have also been a factor. It’s possible that this absence of theories and scholarly research in almost all of these pieces could be a reflection of an important one—less is more. Succinct, non-theoretical quotes are more likely to get points across in the context of journalism while saving precious column space or air time. In line with another news principle, journalists were hesitant to be blatantly subjective in their opinions, unlike scholars. One of the only obvious critiques from mainstream, for-profit news sources was Kia Makarechi’s (2013) more biased take on CNN’s emphasis on including images of the rapists’ families. The rest are incredibly subtle, so subtle that they apply to the subconscious thought process outlined in agenda setting theory.

Based on these findings, it is reasonable to conclude that media coverage of rape against women could be much improved. Regardless of constraints, journalists could have connected the Steubenville rape trials to other rape coverage slanted against women in some manner, or even used both examples in a “big picture” argument. If more media analysis directly addressed how the United States could eliminate rape, as well as discussed agenda setting theory and the stereotypical sexist frames, it seems that coverage could be more favorable to women while portraying men as something besides extreme, sick pedophiles. Thus, both sexes would get equitable, fair coverage at last, with “normal” rape instances getting more attention.

As for scholarly research on media coverage of mostly “extreme” rape, it achieves much more depth and breadth. Scholars’ willingness to have an opinion should be commended. Despite the biased opinions in the scholarly articles cited, it should be noted that almost all scholarly articles use plenty of other scholarly material to reinforce and back up their arguments. In this case, there were no exceptions to that rule, as all of the cited articles used plenty of citations from other credible, academic studies throughout.

Some scholars attempt to tie stereotypical frames female victims of rape and male rapists fall into, the specific language that backs the idea of these frames up, and other related ideas into a quasi-theoretical, overlapping framework (Kitzinger, 2004). However, no commonly accepted theory regarding this issue exists yet. With different articles often emphasizing different parts of the correlating coverage, achieving this goal seems difficult but might be necessary. It may further clarify why media coverage of raped female victims is as offending as it seems to be.

It might also be beneficial for scholars to tie in their framework with existing popular media theories, such as agenda setting theory. No article cited this theory, but it does speak to how audiences might perceive rape stories if media tell people what to think about. Kitzinger (2004) even concluded that a study on audience effects based on this coverage would be extremely beneficial. Once this link is made, it will further strengthen scholars’ opinions.



In the end, there are no easy answers because most of us are resisting change of the status quo, consciously or subconsciously. However, critics seem to expect the journalists to figure it all out. With substantial public opinion against how media currently cover sexual violence against women, especially rape, something has to change. Journalists need to ask bigger questions regarding elimination of rape and cite scholarly concepts. Scholars will likely need to assist in this process by coming up with an encompassing theory behind media coverage of rape and tie in more popular theories for further breadth. If neither are achieved, we will continue to have public backlash toward this coverage as well as maintenance of the status quo through agenda setting. Rape will still mostly go unreported. Women will still be clamoring for equality between the sexes. After the Steubenville rape trial, one thing’s clear more than anything else—journalists have to finally figure out how to reliably cover similar stories while being fair to the women. It’s up to them, with help from the scholars, to fill in the remaining blanks.


Barnett, B. (2012). How newspapers frame rape allegations: The Duke University case. Women & Language, 35(2). 11-33. Retrieved from

Carll, E.K. (2003). News portrayal of violence and women: Implications for public policy. American Behavioral Scientist, 46(12). 1601-1610. doi:10.1177/0002764203254616

Dermody, K. (2013, March 18). Outrage of the day: Rape coverage in the media. GlobalPost. Retrieved from

Goodale, G. (2013, March 20). Stebenville rape trial: Why media came under fire—and what is at stake. The Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved from

Kitzinger, J. (2004). Media coverage of sexual violence against women and children. In K. Ross and C.M. Byerly (Eds.), Women and Media: International Perspectives (2). Retrieved from

Makarechi, K. (2013, March 17). CNN’s Steubenville coverage focuses on effect rape trial will have on rapists, not victim. Huffington Post. Retrieved from

Marcel, M. (2013). Victim gender in news coverage of the priest sex crisis by the Boston Globe. Women’s Studies in Communication, 36(3), 288-311. doi:10.1080/07491409.2013.832088

Murtha, T. (2013, March 19). From Big Dan’s to Steubenville: A generation later, media coverage of rape still awful. RH Reality Check. Retrieved from

O’Hara, S. (2012). Monsters, playboys, virgins and whores: Rape myths in the news media’s coverage of sexual violence. Language and Literature, 21(3), 247-259. doi:10.1177/0963947012444217

Waxman, S. (2013, March 19). Is CNN soft on rapists? Steubenville coverage sparks debate. The Wrap. Retrieved from



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