«The Kobe Bryant Case Renae Franiuk Aurora University, Aurora, Illinois Jennifer L. Seefelt Sandy L. Cepress University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point ...»
Soothill & Walby, 1991; Surette, 1992). Labeling a sexual assault claim as “false” may have more to do with law enforcement adhering to rape myths than with the actual dishonesty of the alleged victim, but Gavey and Gow (2001) found that allegedly false claims are taken as indisputable fact.
Although the vast majority of sexual assaults never get any publicity (Meyers, 1997), the ones that do get publicity serve an important role in shaping and maintaining our perceptions of sexual assault. The above research discusses rape myths on TV and in the print media, but quantitative research in this area remains scant, particularly with regard to the American press. The first goal of this research is to add to the existing literature by assessing the prevalence of rape myths in print journalism surrounding a highly publicized case of acquaintance rape. Although previous researchers have offered speculation about the effects of exposure to such media on attitudes about sexual assault, they have not empirically tested these effects. Therefore, the second goal 6 Violence Against Women of the present research is to assess the impact of the depiction of sexual assault in print journalism on people’s opinions about a sexual assault case.
Overview The two studies presented here address two related issues: (a) How do the media present information about sexual assault cases? and (b) How does this presentation affect its audience? The recent case involving Kobe Bryant allowed us to investigate the print news media’s treatment of a high-profile sexual assault case. This research adds to the literature by empirically assessing the endorsement of rape myths in the American print media and then assessing the effects of exposure to these rape myths.
Study 1 is a content analysis of more than 150 news articles for their endorsement of rape myths and other information that may have influenced readers about the case.
In Study 2, we designed an experiment to assess the causal impact of exposure to rape myths in news articles on people’s attitudes and beliefs about the case.
Method Sample. A total of 156 unique articles were gathered from 76 different online sources (major newspapers and news sources, such as CNN, ESPN). Based on U.S. Census Bureau groupings, 18 (11.5%) articles were from Northeastern newspapers, 16 (10.2%) from Midwestern newspapers, 20 (12.8%) from Southern newspapers 44 (28.2%), from Western newspapers, and 58 (37.2%) from national papers or Web sites. Nine of the 10 most highly circulated newspapers (with the exception of Wall Street Journal) were included in the sample, along with 30 other newspapers among the top 150 most widely circulated (Audit Bureau of Circulation, 2004). Given the large number of articles written about this trial, a sample of articles that was geographically diverse was analyzed for this article. Although only one article was chosen from most newspapers, some sources composed a greater percentage of the sample. The most articles from single sources came from Denver Post (13 articles) and espn.com (12 articles).
Procedure. Collection of articles started when the media first broke the story on July 6, 2003, and stopped when the charges were dropped on September 1, 2004.
The focus of this study was pretrial media. The articles were chosen using search engines (e.g., Google) and the keywords Kobe Bryant sexual assault.
Two raters coded the articles for endorsement of seven rape myths: (a) she’s lying, (b) she asked for it, (c) she wanted it, (d) rape is trivial, (e) he didn’t mean to, (f) he’s not the kind of guy who would do this, and (g) it only happens to “certain” women (Burt, 1980). The articles were also coded for endorsement of any myths Franiuk et al. / Rape Myths in Print Journalism 7 suggesting Kobe Bryant was guilty (e.g., because he is the type to cheat on his wife, he is probably also guilty of sexual assault), positive statements about Kobe Bryant, positive statements about the alleged victim, negative statements about Kobe Bryant, and mention of either the alleged victim or the race of the accused. Myths were coded as present in an article only if the article endorsed those myths.4 If an article mentioned rape myths by countering them, the myths were not counted in the present analysis. Only 13 of the 156 articles included statements countering rape myths.
The two coders were trained together about the seven myths and common examples of each. They were each given a sample article to rate before being given the remainder of the articles. The two coders independently reached consensus on the myths present in this sample article. Each rater coded approximately half of the articles and coded 15 redundant articles to check for interrater reliability. The intraclass correlation to assess interrater reliability for this sample was high at rI =.88 (for an explanation of using intraclass correlations, see Shrout & Fleiss, 1979).
Results Rape myths in articles. On average, there were 1.66 myth-endorsing statements per article, with 65.4% of the articles (n = 102) having at least one myth-endorsing statement. The number of myth-endorsing statements per article ranged from 0 statements (in 34.6% of the articles; n = 54) to 15 statements (in 0.6% of the articles; n = 1), as some myths were occasionally represented more than once in the same article. Also, on average, there was one distinct myth mentioned per article. As seen in Table 1, the most frequently endorsed myths were that the victim was lying (mentioned in 42.3% of all articles) and that she wanted it (mentioned in 31.4% of all articles). A contrast of proportions indicated that the articles were significantly more likely to endorse Rape Myth 1 (she’s lying) than all other rape myths combined (z = 7.90, p.001). Articles were significantly more likely to endorse Rape Myth 3 (she wanted it) than all other rape myths, excluding Rape Myth 1 (z = 6.61, p.001). Articles were significantly more likely to endorse Rape Myth 6 (he’s not the type) than all other rape myths, excluding Rape Myths 1 and 3 (z = 4.67, p.001). Articles were more likely to endorse Rape Myth 2 (she asked for it) than all other rape myths, excluding Rape Myths 1, 3, and 6 (z = 4.86, p.001). Endorsement of Rape Myths 4 (rape is trivial), 5 (he didn’t mean to), and 7 (it only happens to certain women) did not significantly differ in this sample.
Other coded variables in articles. In addition to rape myths, we also coded the articles for other statements that may have influenced readers’ opinions about the sexual assault case (Table 2). We found that 24.4% of the articles had at least one positive comment about Kobe Bryant as an athlete (e.g., “he is one of the best in the league” and “one of the greatest superstars ever to step foot on the court”—Kilson-Anderson, 2003), and 21.2% of the articles had at least one positive comment about Bryant as a 8 Violence Against Women
Note: N = 156 articles.
person (e.g., “the boy next door”—Dilbeck, 2003; “a squeaky-clean image, a devoted husband and father”—Wilson, 2003). Admittedly, 67.0% (n = 22) of the articles with positive comments about Bryant as a person also had positive comments about Bryant as an athlete. In all, 41 (26.3%) unique articles had positive comments about Bryant as an athlete and/or person. In contrast, only 5.1% of the articles (n = 8) had positive comments about the victim as a person (z = 5.47, p.001; e.g., “‘A good kid,’ reporters were told”—Eagan, 2003). It is important to note that the above analyses did not include other articles that discussed Bryant’s performance during the 2003-2004 NBA season. Because the analysis was focused on articles about the sexual assault case, this research does not address the additional press Bryant was receiving outside of the case.
Although most of the information presented in the articles was likely to bias the audience in favor of Bryant’s position (i.e., that a sexual assault did not occur), we also coded the articles for information that might bias the audience against Bryant’s position. Only 2.6% of the articles included negative comments about Bryant as an Franiuk et al. / Rape Myths in Print Journalism 9 athlete, and 14.1% of the articles included negative comments about Bryant as a person. Furthermore, 7.7% of the articles included statements that we coded as “myths about Kobe” because they drew unsubstantiated correlations between events to suggest Bryant’s guilt (e.g., “People will say Kobe bought the verdict... call it O.J.’s legacy”—Reynolds, 2003). Therefore, myths questioning the alleged victim’s honesty (found in 42.3% of articles) were much more common than were myths questioning Bryant’s (z = 7.62, p.001). Finally, in 23.5% of the articles (n = 37), Bryant and/or the alleged victim’s race was mentioned (Bryant is Black and the alleged victim is White). Although Black men are not convicted at a higher rate than are White men in sexual assault cases, Black men convicted of sexual assault against a White woman get the longest prison sentences of all defendants (Wortman, 1985).
This may stem from a long-standing myth about the commonality of Black men sexually assaulting White women (Brownmiller, 1975; Epstein & Langenbaum, 1994) and general stereotypes of Black men as violent (Peffley & Hurwitz, 1998). In addition, Knight, Giuliano, and Sanchez-Ross (2001) found that people were more likely to give harsher punishments to Black celebrities than Black noncelebrities in a hypothetical sexual assault case. Therefore, it is reasonable to think that the mention of race in these articles might have worked against Bryant’s position.
Finally, given Kobe Bryant’s celebrity status, it is likely that more information in general was written about Kobe Bryant than the alleged victim (who was not publicly known prior to this case). Therefore, a significant difference between the amount of information (positive and negative) written about Kobe Bryant and that written about the alleged victim is expected. A better test of a bias in the presentation of information about Bryant and the alleged victim is a within-person comparison of the amount of positive and negative information written about each. Of the articles, 24.0% had positive statements about Bryant as an athlete, and 2.6% of the articles contained negative statements about Bryant as an athlete. Articles were significantly more likely to include positive information about Bryant’s athletic performance (z = 5.91, p.001).
Although one can present relatively objective data to determine whether or not Bryant deserved this positive assessment of his athletic skills, this information may still function to support Rape Myth 6. However, comparing statements about Bryant’s character also shows that journalists were more likely to write positive than negative statements about Bryant as a person (z = 1.65, p.05). In contrast, articles were much more likely to contain negative statements (i.e., she’s lying, she wanted it, or she asked for it) than positive statements about the alleged victim’s character (z = 21.7, p.001).
Discussion Analyzing articles from around the country spanning the 14 months from the point charges were filed until charges were dropped against Kobe Bryant, we found that a high percentage of articles include rape myth–endorsing statements. Rape myths negate the experience of the assault victim and perpetuate our misperceptions 10 Violence Against Women about sexual assault. The articles in Study 1 were most likely to endorse the myths that the alleged victim was lying and that a sexual assault therefore did not occur, that the alleged victim’s actions indicated that she actually wanted the sex (that she is claiming was an assault), implying that the accused cannot be held responsible for interpreting her actions as such, and that the accused is not the type of man who would commit such a heinous act. The alarming frequency with which these myths are perpetuated in the media is highlighted in this content analysis, and the potential impact of these myths in this particular sexual assault case is the focus of Study 2.
Study 1 demonstrated the prevalence of rape myths surrounding the Kobe Bryant case in articles from widely circulated newspapers. The purpose of Study 2 is to assess the causal impact of exposure to these myths on people’s beliefs about this particular case by giving participants bogus articles about the case. In addition, Study 2 allows for a test of the impact of exposure to media breaking rape myths. It was expected that participants would be more likely to believe that Kobe Bryant was not guilty after reading an article endorsing rape myths than they did before they read the article. Participants should be more likely to believe that Kobe Bryant is guilty after reading an article challenging rape myths. Finally, participants should be more likely to hold beliefs in favor of Bryant’s position after reading an article endorsing rape myths than after reading an article challenging rape myths.
Method Participants. Participants were 62 undergraduate students (18 male, 44 female) at a Midwestern university. Their ages ranged from 18 to 49 years, with a mean age of
23.9 years (SD = 5.3) and a median age of 21.5 years. Of the sample, 87% were White, 3% Native American, 3% Asian, 2% Latino, and 5% Other or Missing.
Procedure. This study was conducted in the summer of 2004, approximately 1 year after news about the Kobe Bryant case broke. All data were collected before the charges were dropped on September 1, 2004. Participants were first asked five questions about their existing knowledge of the Kobe Bryant case: (a) if they knew who Kobe Bryant was, (b) if they knew that Kobe Bryant had been charged with sexual assault, (c) to rate how informed they believed they were on a 1 (not at all informed) to 7 (extremely well informed) scale about “the case in general,” (d) to rate how well informed they believed they were about “physical evidence that may be used in court against Kobe Bryant,” and (e) to rate how informed they believed they were about “the alleged victim’s history.” In addition, participants were asked to rate the extent to which they believed Kobe Bryant was guilty of the charges brought Franiuk et al. / Rape Myths in Print Journalism 11 against him on a 1 (definitely not guilty) to 7 (definitely guilty) scale. Participants were then randomly assigned to read one of two fictitious articles about the case.