Same old stories

In her book From Fritzl to #me too, which was published last month, the linguist Alessia Tranchese confronts the myths and stereotypes that the UK press continues to peddle in its reporting of rape and sexual assault. It’s great that someone has done this very thorough investigation of the coverage that appeared in UK newspapers between 2008 and 2019, but it’s hard to imagine a more depressing and enraging project. Tranchese’s analysis shows that the state of rape reporting is as dire as the state of everything else to do with rape—for instance, the decline in rates of prosecution and the low rate of convictions even though most cases never get to court. As she points out, those things may not be unconnected to the way rape is reported: for many people (including those who serve on juries), what they read, hear or see in the media plays a major role in shaping their understanding of the issue.

Tranchese is a corpus linguist: she uses methods which enable analysts to look for statistical patterns in very large samples of data, and to track the way those patterns change (or don’t) over time. This means that her book contains a certain amount of technical discussion which non-specialist readers might find hard going. But this kind of evidence, based on thousands of examples spanning a significant period of time, is a much-needed corrective to the kind of media commentary we’re most likely to see, which offers the writer’s instant hot-take on the latest high-profile case. When the news broke about this week’s ruling by a civil court in New York that Donald Trump had sexually assaulted E. Jean Carroll, for instance, one popular take was that this showed how things had changed in the years since #metoo: women no longer have to be “perfect victims” to be believed. But even if we bracket the fact that this was not a criminal trial and the jury didn’t accept the most serious charge (of rape), that conclusion almost certainly wouldn’t survive a detailed examination of a larger sample of data. Though Tranchese’s research focused on the UK, I’d be willing to bet that a similar study of US news coverage would come to the same general conclusion she does—that most negative attitudes to women who report rape haven’t changed much since the noughties, and some have got measurably worse.    

The most significant thing that has got worse is directly connected to the issue of (dis)belief. The idea that women “cry rape” (i.e., make false accusations) is ancient, but since about 2012, language which implies that women are lying has become more frequent in news reports. One indication of that is the frequency and distribution of the word alleged.  In the early part of the period Tranchese studied, alleged most commonly occurred with words denoting non-sexual crimes, such as bribery or fraud; but after 2011 its use in reference to rape and sexual assault increased significantly. As well as referring to alleged rapes and alleged perpetrators (which may be necessary for legal reasons, to avoid prejudicing a future trial), newspapers began to use the previously very uncommon phrases alleged victim and alleged incident (the latter so cautious as to imply doubt, not just about whether what took place during an encounter was a criminal assault, but whether the encounter itself actually happened). At the same time, they developed the habit of stating explicitly that the man who had been accused of rape denied it, and the verb deny was often accompanied by a strengthening adverb (e.g. “which he vehemently/ adamantly/ categorically denies”).

The result was to establish a pattern of language-use in rape reports which does not maintain a neutral stance on the two parties’ competing accounts. Women’s claims are reported in language that emphasizes their status as unproven and possibly untrue, while men’s counter-claims are reported by simply repeating the men’s own, strongly-worded denials, with no suggestion that they should not be taken at face value (though a man accused of a serious criminal offence surely has at least as much reason to falsely deny his guilt as a woman has to make false accusations).

Tranchese believes that the media’s frequent and unbalanced usage of alleged/allegedly since 2012 has subtly changed the way it’s interpreted. Though the dictionary definition of an allegation is an as-yet unproven claim which may turn out on investigation to be either true or false, in the context of rape reporting it has acquired such a strong association with the idea that women lie, it now primes readers to believe or suspect that whatever has been “alleged” is most likely false. She points out that there are other words the media could use which would enable them to report the facts accurately but more neutrally. For instance, they could refer to the woman as the complainant rather than the alleged victim, to the man as the accused (or, when a case comes to trial, the defendant), and to the incident/assault as reported. These alternatives, however, are rare. As I noted in this 2019 post, the formulaic pairing of rape/assault with alleged is now so entrenched, it was even used by most of the press in a case where the victim, a woman in a residential care-home who had suffered catastrophic brain-damage, was completely incapable of “alleging” anything (rather she gave birth to a child, which in the circumstances could only mean she had been raped).

On the reasons why this pattern has emerged since 2012 (getting a further boost around 2014/15), Tranchese has some interesting things to say. One is, ironically, that it reflects the success of feminist activism around sexual violence. Some of the stories that used to be told to deny or excuse rape—in particular, the old story about women provoking men’s uncontrollable urges by dressing or behaving in certain ways—have become less acceptable and less believable than they once were, and their prevalence in news reports has declined. Unfortunately, what has replaced them is not a new openness to believing women’s reports of rape, but a renewed emphasis on their supposed tendency to lie. As Tranchese memorably puts it, “women’s credibility is the new short skirt”. It’s part of a more general backlash in which the central argument is that the pendulum has swung too far, giving women the power to ruin innocent men’s lives by making false accusations.

But Tranchese also relates the resurgence of the “cry rape” myth to recent changes within the news media themselves. Since the 2010s (the decade when most UK newspapers began producing online as well as print editions) more and more “news” coverage has been devoted to the doings of celebrities. This “celebrification” is also visible in coverage of sexual violence: the most extensively-covered cases in the data sample were a mixture of the ultra-extreme and therefore notorious (e.g., the case of Josef Fritzl in Austria, who kept his daughter prisoner and raped her regularly for many years) and those involving celebrities—men in politics and public life, the entertainment industry or sport. This emphasis on celebrity cases may help to explain the shift to excessively cautious language. Celebrities tend to have money and easy access to lawyers, and the media are terrified of being sued (an increasingly common tactic even among non-celebrities). They may also be reluctant to alienate a celebrity’s fans, who are often very vocal in defending their idols.

The pattern of language Tranchese draws attention to was particularly noticeable in cases involving sports stars, such as the footballers Neymar, Robinho and Ched Evans. In these cases it’s easy for men’s defenders to fall back on the common-sense argument that they don’t need to rape anyone, since hundreds of women are desperate to have sex with them. These women are stereotyped as either “groupies” (who seek out casual sex with famous men) or “gold-diggers” (who hope to have relationships with wealthy men), and those stereotypes become the basis for the contention that a woman who claims to have been raped by a footballer must be lying. She’s either a gold-digger hoping to make money from the accusation or else she’s a groupie crying rape to deflect attention from her own promiscuity. In addition, sportsmen benefit from a particular form of what the philosopher Kate Manne calls “himpathy”, meaning the tendency to sympathize with and make excuses for violent men. In most sports the stars are young and their careers are relatively short: this leads to concern about their lives being ruined and their prodigious talents wasted. Even in cases where their guilt is not in doubt, it’s argued that they shouldn’t lose everything because of “one youthful mistake”.

That dismissive word “mistake” reflects another well-worn belief which was amply attested in Tranchese’s study—that rape in and of itself is not a serious or violent crime. Unless a celebrity is involved, there is a strong tendency for the UK national press to report only those cases where rape or sexual assault is perpetrated by a stranger and accompanied by other forms of violence, like abduction, torture or murder. As Susan Estrich pointed out long ago, these cases are what the police, the courts and the public think of as “real rape”, but the vast majority of actual cases do not fit that template. Most are perpetrated by someone the woman knows (like an acquaintance, colleague or date) and they don’t involve the use of weapons, restraints or threats of killing. The fact that these more typical cases get so little attention in the news media gives a highly misleading impression of how common rape is and what the experience does to its victims (psychological damage is more common than the physical variety).  

Tranchese also found that, along with multiple, Savile-style assaults on children, extremely violent rapes (especially when followed by murder) were the only cases in which the media were willing to condemn white, professional and “respectable” or famous men unequivocally. More commonly these men benefited from himpathy, whereas other groups of men (e.g., poor men, migrant men, members of certain minority ethnic groups and men living in the supposedly “backward” societies of the Global South) were more likely to be demonized. This is not a great surprise if you’re familiar with the UK press, but once again it ends up presenting readers with a seriously distorted picture of reality.         

The corpus of data this study was based on included the period when #metoo attracted significant news coverage (the hashtag first trended in October 2017), and the last part of the book investigates how it was reported and what difference, if any, it made. Tranchese notes that commentary on #metoo, including feminist commentary, was polarized: on one hand there was the view that it had changed, or was going to change, everything, while on the other there was a tendency (one which intensified as time went on) to portray it negatively, whether as an unjust war on men, a political failure which in practice had accomplished little, or—for some feminists—yet another example of privileged white women hi-jacking a campaign and excluding those who in reality were most in need of support.

Tranchese is critical of these arguments. Her data show that while #metoo did increase the quantity of reporting on less “extreme” forms of sexual violence or coercion (in particular sexual harassment), in other ways it didn’t change the picture dramatically: many of the negative trends it was accused by critics of causing had actually started several years earlier (e.g., the obsession with celebrities and the renewed, “backlash”-related emphasis on women’s supposed power to ruin men’s lives with false allegations were both underway by 2012).

She also argues that when some feminists blamed other feminists for #metoo’s “failure”, they were overlooking the extent to which the wider reception of #metoo was controlled not by feminists, but by the mainstream media. It was the media, for instance, that persistently referred to #metoo as a “movement” and wrote stories in which it was talked about as an entity with agency, as if it had been a pressure group or an NGO with a mandate to lobby for change. In fact it was just a hashtag which individuals could use to link their own testimony to that of other women. These hashtag users did not constitute an organized political group with a set of demands; the most #metoo was ever likely to accomplish was to encourage the formation of such groups. And if the voices of less privileged women were either absent or ignored, that too had something to do with the mainstream media’s preference for the glamorous over the ordinary.

Another thing Tranchese criticizes is the way media coverage of #metoo both reflected and promoted what she calls “social amnesia”, presenting the upsurge of feminist anger in 2017 as a sudden and unprecedented awakening, when in fact it had numerous precedents. Her own sample revealed that a lot of the arguments around #metoo were effectively re-runs of the discussion that took place in 2011, when the IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn was accused of raping a Senegalese maid in a New York hotel; but she also gives examples from earlier decades, such as Whoopi Goldberg’s announcement that “it’s 1994 and the shit is hitting the fan: women are pissed!” (Goldberg was commenting on a series of recent events that included the case of Loreena Bobbitt, who cut off her abusive husband’s penis, the testimony of Paula Jones against Bill Clinton and some early expressions of concern about Michael Jackson.) The truth is that women are perennially and perpetually angry about male violence, but every time there’s a public explosion of that anger the news media will report it as if no one had ever noticed the problem before (it’s called “news” for a reason: amnesia is in its DNA).

“Celebrification” is not the only 21st century development that it would be relevant to consider as an influence on recent and current rape reporting (though I’m not faulting Tranchese for concentrating on trends she has hard evidence for: that’s very much a strength of her book). Another is the rise and rise of “churnalism”, the reliance of journalists—whose numbers at many news outlets have been savagely cut in the digital era—on copying and pasting news stories from press releases, agency copy and, increasingly, social media. That’s not the only reason why their rape reporting recycles myths and stereotypes, but it certainly doesn’t encourage a more thoughtful approach, whereas it does encourage the repetition on autopilot of formulas like “alleged incident”. There’s also the fact that, as we learned recently from no less an authority than Rupert Murdoch, more and more “news” is essentially designed to make money by telling people what they want to hear, even if those doing the telling know it’s garbage. We live, apparently, in a “post-truth” culture: if a certain story is popular, if it resonates with the audience’s preconceptions, who cares if it’s biased and misleading?

Nevertheless, I’d love to see Tranchese present her findings in a way that would make them accessible to reporters and editors. Not all may be in a position to buck the trends she has uncovered, but—on the assumption that many or most of them aren’t actively supportive of rape culture—they should at least have the opportunity to reflect on the contribution conventional news reporting makes to it.