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«The Kobe Bryant Case Renae Franiuk Aurora University, Aurora, Illinois Jennifer L. Seefelt Sandy L. Cepress University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point ...»

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Violence Against Women

Volume X Number X

Month XXXX xx-xx

© 2008 Sage Publications


Prevalence and Effects of Rape http://vaw.sagepub.com

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Myths in Print Journalism http://online.sagepub.com

The Kobe Bryant Case

Renae Franiuk

Aurora University, Aurora, Illinois

Jennifer L. Seefelt

Sandy L. Cepress

University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point Joseph A. Vandello University of South Florida, Tampa Two studies examine the prevalence and effects of rape myths in the print media covering a real-life case of alleged sexual assault. Study 1 was an archival study of 156 sources from around the country. Articles about the Kobe Bryant case were coded for instances of rape myths, among other variables. Of the articles, 65 mentioned at least one rape myth (with “she’s lying” being the single most common myth perpetuated). Study 2 assessed participants’ (N = 62) prior knowledge of the Bryant case and exposed them to a mythendorsing or myth-challenging article about the case. Those exposed to the myth-endorsing article were more likely to believe that Bryant was not guilty and the alleged victim was lying. The implications for victim reporting and reducing sexual assault in general are discussed.

Keywords: news media; rape myths; sexual assault Helping the media shape the perception of a case is the single most important thing a lawyer can do.

Alan Dershowitz (quoted in Chancer, 2005) On July 1, 2003, a woman went to authorities in Eagle County, Colorado, and reported that Los Angeles Lakers basketball player Kobe Bryant sexually assaulted her the night before. Kobe Bryant acknowledged having sexual intercourse with this woman but said that the sex was consensual. Two weeks later, Mark Hurlbert, Eagle County district attorney, decided there was enough evidence to proceed to trial, and Kobe Bryant was formally charged with one count of felony sexual assault. In the 14 months that preceded the trial, hundreds of articles were published in newspapers around the country and on the Internet about this case. More than 70 articles were Author’s Note: We are grateful for help with data collection from Sara Johnson and Jesse Riegert.

2 Violence Against Women written for the Denver Post alone before the trial was set to begin. On September 1, 2004, the Eagle County DA dropped the charges filed against Kobe Bryant mainly because of the alleged victim’s decision not to testify. Leading up to the trial, several errors on the part of the court led to confidential material about the trial being leaked to the press. The alleged victim believed that she could not get a fair trial because of how the case had been discussed in the media in the year preceding the trial.

For most people, sexual assault is conceptualized as a brutal crime that occurs between strangers and deserves swift and harsh punishment for the offender. However, in actuality, most sexual assaults are committed by acquaintances of the victim, go unreported, and, when reported, typically go unpunished (U.S. Department of Justice, 2003). To explain this disconnect between people’s images of sexual assault and the reality of sexual assault, Martha Burt (1980) outlined several “rape myths” that highlight the distinction between sexual assaults that actually occur and ones that we (prefer to) believe occur. Research supports that people are more likely to label a situation as sexual assault when it fits the prototype—for example, when a “no” is explicit, when it is not a dating couple (Check & Malamuth, 1983; Goodchilds, Zellman, Johnson, & Giarrusso, 1988; Sawyer, Pinciaro, & Jessell, 1998). When sexual assault does not fit this image of what Estrich (1987) labels “real rape,” people are likely to employ one or more rape myths to explain away the assault. In the present research, we explored the prevalence of rape myths in print journalism and the effects of exposure to rape myths on people’s beliefs about sexual assault. The recent charges brought against Kobe Bryant presented a unique opportunity to study rape myths in the media coverage of a high-profile case (Study 1). Furthermore, this case allowed for a real-world test of media exposure to rape myths on people’s attitudes and beliefs about the case (Study 2). In reality, only Kobe Bryant and his alleged victim can know exactly what happened that night in June 2003. It is the goal of this article not to suggest otherwise but rather to show the extent to which stereotypes and misconceptions are still used when discussing sexual assault and the impact that these myths can have on beliefs about sexual assault cases. Because of the uniquely high profile of Kobe Bryant and the subsequent media saturation of the case, this story had great potential to shape public opinion about sexual assault in general.

Rape Myths Rape myths are generalized and widely held beliefs about sexual assault that serve to trivialize the sexual assault or suggest that a sexual assault did not actually occur.

Brownmiller (1975) was one of the first to discuss the long history of myths and misconceptions about sexual assault. A few years later, Burt (1980; Burt & Albin, 1981) developed a measure of several rape myths that reflect common responses to sexual assaults that do not fit the prototype described above. Burt (1980) described myths about the victim, the perpetrator, and the nature of sexual assault. Myths about the victim suggest that she is lying and has ulterior motives,1 was “asking for it” (e.g., by Franiuk et al. / Rape Myths in Print Journalism 3 going to the perpetrator’s apartment for a drink), is not the type of woman who gets raped (i.e., it only happens to promiscuous women), or changed her story after the fact (i.e., she wanted it at the time). Myths about the perpetrator excuse his behavior (i.e., he didn’t mean to) or paint a narrow picture of those who commit sexual assault (i.e., sexcrazed psychopaths).2 People also hold the false belief that rape is trivial (i.e., she wasn’t really hurt) or natural (i.e., men have a biological predisposition to get sex through force). Although it is possible that for any specific case the above beliefs may not actually be myths (i.e., the “she is lying” allegation is accurate if a woman has made a false report), these are “myths” in the sense that data do not generally support these popular beliefs about sexual assault (for a review, see Lonsway & Fitzgerald, 1994).3 Although endorsing rape myths may seem malicious and cruel, this is usually not the explicit motivation of those maintaining these beliefs. First, Brinson (1992) noted that sexual assault contradicts our culture’s values of personal integrity and justice. As a culture, we pride ourselves on respecting one’s personal integrity and in punishing those who violate such integrity. Sexual assault is a serious violation of the victim’s personal integrity, and consistency demands that we severely punish those who violate this cultural norm. However, the majority of sexual assaults go unreported (Koss, 1992), and the majority of those reported go unpunished (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1998; U.S. Department of Justice, 2003). The employment of rape myths may explain why judges and juries are not harshly punishing this crime that they would otherwise view as very serious (Brinson, 1992; Burt, 1991). By using rape myths to explain away the majority of sexual assaults that occur, a culture maintains that sexual assault is a serious violation that should be punished harshly (in the rare instances) when it does occur.

A related explanation for the widespread employment of rape myths is the pervasive motivation to believe the world is just. Lerner (1980) argued that the belief in a just world allows people to give order to and make sense out of troubling events. A belief in a just world encourages the attribution that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. Therefore, when a negative event such as sexual assault occurs, people search for a way to make sense of it. It is threatening to accept that a sexual assault could have happened under less prototypical (and, therefore, less predictable) circumstances, so people have a tendency to use just-world explanations for the event (Cowan & Curtis, 1994; McCaul, Veltum, Boyechko, & Crawford, 1990;

Wyer, Bodenhausen, & Gorman, 1985). The thinking goes, “If this woman who is not promiscuous, who was not dressed provocatively, who clearly did say ‘no’ and was with her boyfriend was sexually assaulted, what’s to prevent me from getting sexually assaulted too?” People have a powerful incentive to maintain rape myths as a way of bringing predictability and control to otherwise random events. Furthermore, internalizing rape myths may protect us from disturbing thoughts that we have been victims of or have committed sexual assault (Lonsway & Fitzgerald, 1995).

4 Violence Against Women Several studies have shown that rape myths are endorsed by a significant portion of the population and that men are almost always more accepting of rape myths than are women (for a review, see Lonsway & Fitzgerald, 1994). Rape myths, no matter how strongly endorsed by an individual, have serious consequences for sexual assault victims. People who endorse rape myths are less likely to label a scenario as sexual assault, even when it meets the legal criteria (Muehlenhard & MacNaughton, 1988;

Norris & Cubbins, 1992). Endorsement of rape myths leads people to be less likely to blame the man for an assault (Check & Malamuth, 1985; Linz, Donnerstein, & Adams, 1989; Muehlenhard & MacNaughton, 1988). Muehlenhard and MacNaughton (1988) showed that women who endorsed rape myths were 3 times more likely to be victims of coerced sex than were those who did not strongly endorse rape myths (though Koss and Dinero, 1989, did not find this distinction). Priming men’s rape myth acceptance increased their self-reported likelihood of sexually assaulting a woman (Bohner et al., 1998; Bohner, Jarvis, Eyssel, & Siebler, 2005). Furthermore, research has shown associations between the endorsement of rape myths and hostility toward women, endorsement of stereotypical attitudes and sex roles for women, and negative evaluations of rape survivors (for a review, see Lonsway & Fitzgerald, 1994). Finally, rape myth acceptance has been shown to lead to greater victim blame, lower conviction rates for accused rapists, and shorter sentences for convicted rapists by juries in mock trials (Finch & Munro, 2005; also see Lonsway & Fitzgerald, 1994). It follows that rape myths may lead others to advise a sexual assault victim away from pressing charges, may lead law enforcement to doubt the legitimacy of a woman’s claim, and may lead lawmakers away from enacting appropriate legislation.

As suggested above, rape myths serve to indirectly perpetuate sexual violence through creating beliefs and attitudes about sexual assault that distort the definition of sexual assault and shift the blame to the victim. Rape myths may also directly contribute to sexual violence by leading to a greater likelihood to commit sexual assault. Several studies have shown correlations between endorsement of rape myths and sexual aggression (e.g., Koss, Leonard, Beezley, & Oros, 1985), whereas other studies have shown causal associations between endorsement of rape myths and aggressive behavior against women (but not men) in the laboratory (e.g., Donnerstein & Malamuth, 1997). Finally, Lanier (2001), in a longitudinal study of 851 young men, found that rape-myth supportive attitudes predicted sexually aggressive behavior, but sexual aggression did not predict rape myth attitudes. Despite these findings, it is admittedly difficult to go beyond correlational data or measures of aggression in a controlled setting to empirically establish a causal association between rape myth endorsement and actual sexual aggression.

Media Exposure and Views of Sexual Assault Rape myths are part of transmitted culture. They get passed from person to person through many channels. Popular media is one such channel. Although we usually view movies and television shows as fictional accounts of events and news media as Franiuk et al. / Rape Myths in Print Journalism 5 factual, the similarities between the two in promulgating stereotypical views of sexual assault are striking. The media’s treatment of sexual assault not only serves to prime and reinforce rape myths in those who already hold them but also may construct these thoughts for those who do not already have them.

Evaluating sexual assault’s treatment in the media, researchers have primarily focused on television shows and print journalism. Cuklanz (2000), evaluating primetime television shows depicting sexual assaults from 1976 to 1990, found that acquaintance rapes became more prevalent in the late 80s and that cases of false accusations were overrepresented on TV. Brinson (1992), reviewing 26 episodes involving sexual assault from various television shows in the 1980s, found that each episode averaged just more than five uses of rape myths, with the most commonly endorsed myths being “she asked for it” (46% of the episodes) and “she wanted it” (42% of the episodes).

However, Cuklanz (1996, 2000) found fictional depictions on TV to be more sympathetic to sexual assault victims and issues than mass media depictions of actual sexual assault cases during the same period. This is consistent with findings that reality “crime-solving” police programs tend to engage in victim blame by focusing on victims instead of perpetrators to sensationalize crimes for the purpose of garnering viewers (Dobash, Schlesinger, Dobash, & Weaver, 1998). Cuklanz (1996) suggested that the “fragmented nature of news” (p. 50) perpetuates traditional, stereotypical views of sexual assault by discussing many elements out of context. First, victimblame themes are common in newspaper accounts of sexual assault cases (Korn & Efrat, 2004; Los & Chamard, 1997; Smart & Smart, 1978). Los and Chamard (1997) reviewed several hundred cases of sexual assault covered in Canadian newspapers in the early 1980s. They found that although stranger rapes were reported more frequently during the 5-year period, acquaintance rape cases received more attention (i.e., more articles on the one case), and the reputation of the victim was usually the focus.

Second, news media accounts of sexual assault cases seem to focus on the stereotypical stranger rape, unusual cases, and rare cases in which the accusation had been falsified (Caringella-MacDonald, 1998; Gavey & Gow, 2001; Los & Chamard, 1997;

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