«The Kobe Bryant Case Renae Franiuk Aurora University, Aurora, Illinois Jennifer L. Seefelt Sandy L. Cepress University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point ...»
One article was rape myth endorsing (RME) and the other was rape myth challenging (RMC).5 The two articles were of approximately the same length (around 1,000 words), with the RME article including 11 statements endorsing rape myths and the RMC article including 9 statements countering rape myths. The RME article was fashioned after many of the actual articles that had been printed in the media (mainly focusing on Rape Myths 1, 3, and 6) but was a more extreme version of these articles in the sense that it included more RME statements than most of the articles from Study
1. The RME article included statements such as “We also know that the woman had planned to see Kobe that evening, expected him to make a move on her, was flirtatious with him, and admitted to willingly kissing him.” The RMC article took a position cautioning readers against employing rape myths and gave reasons to “explain away” the myths that the media had been presenting (again focusing on Myths 1, 3, and 6). The RMC article included statements to counter rape myths such as Reports have stated that the accuser knew she would be seeing Bryant that night and that she expected him to make a move on her. These statements, though, do not imply that she indeed wanted sex or that she didn’t change her mind once alone with Bryant.
After reading the article, participants were asked two questions about their opinions about the Kobe Bryant case. As they were before the manipulation, participants were asked to rate the extent to which they believed that Kobe Bryant was guilty of the charges brought against him, and participants were asked to rate the extent to which they believed that the alleged victim was lying on a 1 (definitely not lying) to 7 (definitely lying) scale. Participants were asked about the victim’s honesty postmanipulation only to minimize bias and suspicion prior to reading the stimulus article. Also, following the manipulation, participants were again asked Questions 3 to 5 above regarding how informed they felt they were about the case. Participants then filled out a short demographics form including questions about gender, year in school, age, ethnicity, religiosity, and relationship status. Participants were thanked, debriefed, and given a list of community and campus resources for sexual assault support.
Results Preexisting knowledge of the case. All but 2 participants said that they knew who Kobe Bryant was, and all but 1 of these participants said that they knew that Kobe Bryant had been charged with sexual assault. Of the participants who knew about the sexual assault case, participants rated their knowledge slightly below the midpoint on the 7-point scale (M = 3.57, SD = 1.56). Therefore, it follows that participants felt even less informed about the alleged victim’s history (M = 3.02, SD = 1.74) and the physical evidence in the case (M = 2.63, SD = 1.64). That participants believed they 12 Violence Against Women knew more about the alleged victim’s history than the physical evidence against Bryant is practically and statistically significant, t(58) = –2.65, p.01. This is consistent with findings from Study 1 on the prevalence of rape myths in the media surrounding this case. There were no preexisting differences between experimental conditions on any of these variables, t values 1.34. After reading the articles about the case, all participants felt more informed about the case in general, more informed about the victim’s sexual history, and more informed about the physical evidence in the case (t values –2.84, p values.01) than they did prior to reading the article.
Furthermore, there were no preexisting differences between experimental conditions on participants’ ratings of Bryant’s guilt (t(57) = –0.75, ns).
Beliefs about the case. Reading the articles shifted participants’ beliefs about Bryant in the predicted directions. Figure 1 shows participants’ mean ratings of Bryant’s guilt pre- and postarticle exposure in the RME and RMC conditions. A 2 × 2 mixed-model ANOVA showed that the interaction between article condition and preand postmanipulation ratings of Bryant’s guilt was significant, F(1, 54) = 21.85, p.001. As expected, there was no main effect for pre- and postmanipulation ratings, F(1, 54) = 2.68, ns. There was a significant main effect for article condition, driven by the significant difference in the postmanipulation ratings, F(1, 54) = 6.77, p.05.
In other words, before reading the RMC or RME article, participants’ ratings of Bryant’s guilt fell very close to the midpoint of the scale (M = 4.09, SD = 1.1).
Participants in the RME (M = 3.94, SD = 1.34) and RMC (M = 4.20, SD = 0.89) conditions did not differ in premanipulation guilt ratings, t(57) = –0.75, ns. However, postmanipulation, participants exposed to the RME article were less likely to believe that Bryant was guilty (M = 3.25, SD = 1.49) than those exposed to the RMC article (M = 4.48, SD = 0.91), t(57) = –3.93, p.001 (see Figure 1). Most important, withinsubject ratings of Bryant’s guilt significantly changed in the predicted directions after reading the stimulus article compared to premanipulation ratings. After reading the RME article, participants were more likely to believe that Bryant was not guilty, t(25) = 3.49, p.01. After reading the RMC article, participants were less likely to believe that Bryant was not guilty, t(29) = –3.10, p.01. in addition, participants who read the RME article (M = 4.48, SD = 1.34) were significantly more likely to believe that the alleged victim was lying than were those who read the RMC article (M = 3.79, SD = 1.0), t(57) = 2.25, p.05.
Discussion Study 2 highlights the causal effects of exposure to articles endorsing and challenging rape myths. This study demonstrated how exposure to articles endorsing rape myths leads participants to be more likely to side with the defendant in a sexual assault case than prior to exposure. Furthermore, exposure to articles challenging rape myths leads participants to be more likely to believe an alleged victim’s Franiuk et al. / Rape Myths in Print Journalism 13 Figure 1 Participants’ Ratings of Kobe Bryant’s Guilt Before and After Article Exposure claim of sexual assault than prior to exposure. Given the widespread endorsement of rape myths in the media (as supported by Study 1), Study 2 suggests the effects that such media exposure could have had on the Kobe Bryant sexual assault case and on sexual assault cases in general.
Taken together, findings from the current studies show the media’s role in perpetuating rape myths and reinforcing beliefs about men and women who support sexual assault in American culture. Study 1 demonstrated the extent to which rape myths are endorsed in print journalism. More than 65% of articles discussing the Kobe Bryant sexual assault case included at least one statement endorsing popular rape myths.
Finding that “she’s lying” and “she wanted it” were the most commonly perpetuated myths was consistent with past research on rape myth endorsement in the media 14 Violence Against Women (Caringella-MacDonald, 1998; Los & Chamard, 1997). Study 2 allowed for a test of the effects of these myths in this particular case. Participants were much more likely to think that the defendant was not guilty after reading a RME article compared to pre-exposure beliefs, and participants were much more likely to think the defendant was guilty after reading a RMC article. Finally, participants were more likely to think that the victim was lying after reading a RME article than after reading a RMC article. Study 2 is an important demonstration of the potential devastating effects of the saturation of media coverage of sexual assault cases with rape myths.
In Study 1, not only did a high percentage of articles contain RME statements, but the articles also often contained other irrelevant information about Kobe Bryant and the alleged victim that might have swayed readers’ opinions of the case. For example, numerous articles mentioned Bryant’s (good) performance as an athlete during past and present NBA seasons. In addition, many articles discussed general sentiment by the public and other NBA players about Bryant’s (good) character. The alleged victim in the case did not receive such additional positive editorial comments in articles about the case. And although it is important to acknowledge that there was irrelevant information presented in the articles that may have biased readers against Bryant (e.g., his race), this information was much less likely to be presented than information that led readers to believe a sexual assault did not occur.
The findings from Study 2 are consistent with findings from other studies investigating the effects of rape myths in the media. Exposure to rape myths reinforces people’s prototypical representations of sexual assault, making them more likely to dismiss or explain away claims of sexual assault that do not fit their narrow definitions (for a review, see Lonsway & Fitzgerald, 1994). Franiuk and Seefelt (2006) found that men were less sympathetic to sexual assault victims after reading newspaper headlines endorsing rape myths. Furthermore, exposure to rape myths may either lead victims of sexual assault to dismiss their own experiences or scare them away from reporting sexual assault (Peterson & Muehlenhard, 2004; Pitts & Schwartz, 1997). According to survey evidence, only 10% to 40% of sexual assaults (and possibly far fewer) are reported to police (Kilpatrick, Edmunds, & Seymour, 1992; Koss, 1992; U.S. Department of Justice, 2003). Finally, exposure to rape myths can lead men to excuse or dismiss their own sexually assaulting behavior (Lonsway & Fitzgerald, 1995; Sinclair & Bourne, 1998).
Rape Myths and the Media The Kobe Bryant case is unusual in that it deals with an acquaintance rape, unlike most sexual assault stories in the news (Los & Chamard, 1997). Therefore, the prevalence of rape myths used in this case is not surprising given that this case does not meet the criteria for the prototypical “stranger” rape. In other words, because this case does not meet the stereotypical criteria for a sexual assault, people may be particularly inclined to dismiss it as a sexual assault. Researchers have suggested that Franiuk et al. / Rape Myths in Print Journalism 15 coverage of acquaintance rape cases often perpetuates rape myths by focusing on the misinterpretations and misunderstandings between the victim and the accused (Los & Chamard, 1997; Smart & Smart, 1978). Results from the present research support this assertion given the prevalence of rape myths found in Study 1.
Rape myths serve to not only perpetuate misinformation about sexual assault but also prevent communication of accurate information about sexual assault. Some of the information used against the alleged victim in this case (e.g., emotional instability, promiscuity) could have been used to discuss her heightened vulnerability to sexual assault (Gold, Sinclair, & Balge, 1999). Suggesting that a woman’s promiscuity makes it more likely that she “wanted” the sexual assault is mutually exclusive of suggestions that sexual promiscuity may put a woman in more sexual situations, thereby increasing her chances of being assaulted (Koss, 1985; Koss & Dinero, 1989).
Furthermore, Rape Myth 3 (suggesting she is promiscuous) and Rape Myth 7 (suggesting it only happens to promiscuous women) contradict one another. Suggesting that a woman is promiscuous implies that she is the type to want sex (and, therefore, cannot be assaulted), which runs contrary to the myth that sexual assault happens only to promiscuous women. That people endorse these contradictory myths suggests that people employ not all rape myths at once, just the ones that assist in dismissing the current sexual assault. Although endorsement of rape myths is to be expected from a defendant’s attorney, it seems that the court of public opinion, fueled by media reports, often tries a case before it actually makes it to the courtroom (Chancer, 2005).
By her own admission, the alleged victim in this case was no longer willing to testify in the criminal trial after a year of being vilified by the press (“Experts Were to Testify,” 2004). Results from Study 2 (and past research on rape myths) support her fears that she would not have been able to receive a fair trial from an unbiased judge and jury (for a review, see Lonsway & Fitzgerald, 1994).
Given what we know about people’s perceptions of sexual assault, it is no surprise that we continue to see the media flooded with rape myths when charges of sexual assault make the headlines. However, given the prevalence of sexual assaults that do not fit the prototype, it may seem surprising that people have not changed their views of sexual assault. As social cognitive research on motivated reasoning and perseverance biases has repeatedly demonstrated, though, people will often maintain erroneous beliefs in the face of contradictory evidence (e.g., Anderson, Lepper, & Ross, 1980; Kunda, 1990). It takes mental effort to change existing beliefs, especially when this change may be threatening and cause personal distress. Although it is difficult to acknowledge truths about sexual assault, it is ironically more harmful to ourselves and others not to do so.
When confronted with data from studies demonstrating the negative influence of the media, many people defensively say that they are able to separate “truth” from fiction in television shows and movies. Although the effects of the media are well documented (e.g., Bryant & Zillman, 1994; Emmers-Sommer & Allen, 1999), there are likely certain audiences that give less credibility to the messages they receive 16 Violence Against Women from television and movies than do other audiences. Messages received through television and print journalism, however, may not be filtered with the same skepticism as other media. Although some viewers may dismiss rape myths in movies and television shows as distortions of reality, these same viewers may look at television and print news as unbiased presentations of fact (Gaziano, 1988; Robinson & Kohut, 1988; Surette, 1992). Any form of media that transmits rape myths is clearly problematic, but news media may have a greater impact on audiences’ (false) beliefs about sexual assault given our almost blind faith that their reports are impartial. Rape myths in the news may contribute to the development of rape myths, and, more likely, they may prime rape myths already held by the audience and make people more likely to use them in the future (Malamuth & Check, 1985).