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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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Of interest, sexual assault cases seem to present a counterexample to the common finding that pretrial publicity (PTP) usually biases potential jurors against defendants (for a review, see Devine, Clayton, Dunford, Seying, & Pryce, 2001); however, much PTP related to sexual assaults is antiprosecution and/or prodefendant.6 Past researchers have found that men, in particular, are less likely to display an antidefendant bias after exposure to PTP for sexual assault cases (Hoiberg & Stires, 1973; Mullin, Imrich, & Linz, 1996). The current studies suggest a possible reason for PTP biases favoring defendants in sexual assault cases—namely, journalists’ employment of rape myths.

It is important to note that journalists’ motives behind endorsing rape myths in coverage of sexual assault cases are not elucidated by the present research. First, according to Websdale and Alvarez (1998), journalists’ use of “forensic journalism” causes them to give many details of a crime without discussing these details within the context of the greater social issues related to that crime. This journalistic strategy also involves getting information quickly, regardless of the source, and is readily capitalized on by defense attorneys in sexual assault cases (Chancer, 2005; Websdale & Alvarez, 1998). Second, it is possible that journalists consciously employ rape myths in their writing to sensationalize a story and increase newspaper sales. It is also possible that the use of rape myths in print journalism is less a reflection of malicious intent by an author and more a reflection of that author’s internalization of our culture’s beliefs about sexual assault. Journalists may believe that they are merely presenting reasonable alternatives to a sexual assault claim. Although it would be interesting to assess journalists’ personal endorsement of rape myths, bringing the current research to the attention of journalists is important for reducing rape myths in the print media regardless of journalists’ motives.

In Study 1, we found that nearly 35% of articles did not mention rape myths at all.

Clearly, bias-free journalism is possible, if not probable. The media have great potential for positive effects, too, as past research has shown the positive impact of prosocial messages on television (Fisch, Truglio, & Cole, 1999; McAlister, 2000; Mussen & Eisenberg-Berg, 1977). In addition to showing the negative impact of media coverage of sexual assault cases, Study 2 suggests the potentially powerful effects of countering rape myths when discussing sexual assault cases. RMC messages in the Franiuk et al. / Rape Myths in Print Journalism 17 media can break myths (at least temporarily). It is important to note that in Study 2 it is impossible to determine whether reading a RMC article leads people to espouse an antidefendant stance unfairly or helps people evaluate the case on the evidence and accurate information about sexual assault. Future research to delineate the short- and long-term effects of both RME messages and RMC messages is imperative.

On September 1, 2004, the district attorney’s office in Eagle, Colorado, dropped the charges against Kobe Bryant primarily because of the alleged victim’s decision not to testify. Many have speculated about this turn of events, but the alleged victim has said little publicly about her decision. Her attorneys said that she believed she could not get a fair trial after all of the leaks and errors in this case (“Experts Were to Testify,” 2004). Furthermore, her attorneys cited the alleged victim’s fear of how she was going to be the one put on trial through cross-examination (which would undoubtedly employ rape myths; Experts Were to Testify,” 2004). We will never know what specific role the media’s saturation with rape myths played in the alleged victim’s decision, but given the research presented here, we can fairly confidently cite negative repercussions. And more important, we will never know the full impact that this case will have on future sexual assault victims and perpetrators. Research has shown that men are more likely to accept rape myths after a not-guilty verdict in a sexual assault case (Sinclair & Bourne, 1998). At least for men, not-guilty verdicts strengthen their beliefs that excuse men as perpetrators of sexual assault. The rape myths surrounding the Bryant case likely played a large role in preventing the alleged victim from believing she could receive a fair trial; and, consequently, her decision to not testify in the criminal trial resulted in an effectively “not-guilty” verdict for Bryant that further validates rape myths.

Limitations These studies are not without their limitations. First, a small sample size prevented gender and racial comparisons in Study 2. Generally, research on rape myths has shown that men are more accepting of rape myths than are women, but most studies also show that women hold and are affected by perceptual biases about sexual assault (for reviews, see Linz, 1989; Lonsway & Fitzgerald, 1994). Research on rape myths is also consistent in showing that non-White men and women are more likely to endorse rape myths than are White men and women (e.g., Fischer, 1987; Foley, Evancic, Karnik, King, & Parks, 1995; Jimenez & Abreu, 2003; Varelas & Foley, 1998). Future research should investigate gender and racial differences in attitudes post–rape myth exposure in the media.

Second, questions of generalizability arise from this high-profile case. The Kobe Bryant case presented an opportunity to examine rape myths associated with one case because of the relatively large amount of media coverage, but there could have been features unique to this case that led to the results presented here. Certainly, Kobe Bryant’s celebrity is one feature that would not be present in most sexual assault 18 Violence Against Women cases. One could argue that his status and athletic success put journalists in a unique position to use Rape Myth 6 (“he’s not the type”). Furthermore, as claimed by the defendant’s attorneys, his fame and wealth make it easy to believe that he might be particularly vulnerable to false accusations (Rape Myth 1). Finally, the desire to sensationalize this story through the use of rape myths may be greater for this case than for others because of Bryant’s notoriety and the increased likelihood to sell newspapers. The results presented in this study are consistent with prevalence rates of rape myths in other mediums, but it would be advantageous to do a broader review of sexual assault cases in print journalism.

Regardless of the uniqueness or commonality of the coverage of this case, highly publicized sexual assault trials play a very important role in perpetuating rape myths.

Even if the number of rape myths in these articles is greater compared to articles about other cases of sexual assault, the enormous celebrity and media saturation suggest the potential for this case to have a great influence on public opinion, much as the O.J. Simpson case brought public opinions about race and crime into sharper relief a decade earlier (Brown, Duane, & Fraser, 1997; Chancer, 2005; Mixon, Foley, & Orme, 1995). Most articles about sexual assault are about stranger rape (also fulfilling rape myths) and/or get ignored because they get very little press. The attention given to this case and the use of rape myths make this case particularly damaging, regardless of how representative it is of the way the print media typically treat sexual assault. Freeman (1993) and Chancer (2005) address this point in their writings about the highly publicized William Kennedy Smith and Mike Tyson sexual assault trials.

Finally, the manipulation in Study 2 is admittedly strong. The information presented in each fabricated article was more than was mentioned on average in actual articles written about the case. A few editorials presented almost as much information about the case (as presented in Study 2), but most articles printed less. Nevertheless, people likely were exposed to hundreds of articles and television and radio news stories about this case. And given that articles on crime are the most likely to be read of all newspaper articles (Surette, 1992), it is reasonable to believe that most people would have been exposed to most or all of the information that was presented in the articles in this study.7 Therefore, the amount of information participants received in Study 2 represents a culmination of the information people had read or heard about the case during the 14 months between the original allegation and case dismissal.

Nevertheless, future research should investigate the effects of varying exposure to rape myths in newspaper articles.

Summary One of the biggest barriers that remains for reducing sexual assault is people’s inability or refusal to recognize it when it occurs. When a sexual assault does not meet the criteria for a prototypical sexual assault (and it often does not), we are likely to use rape myths. Unfortunately, the employment of rape myths creates a vicious cycle Franiuk et al. / Rape Myths in Print Journalism 19 that makes it increasingly harder for sexual assault victims to report the crime. In the unlikely event that a sexual assault victim actually reports the crime, rape myths are self-reinforcing when they influence the way the victim is treated along the entire chain of the criminal justice process (e.g., intake by hospital personnel, questioning and investigation by law enforcement, jury verdicts, judge’s sentencing). For example, the myth that women lie about sexual assault may contribute to law enforcement personnel not accepting a woman’s sexual assault claim and deeming it a false report or “unfounded” (Estrich, 1987). This boosts the belief that women often make false claims of sexual assault and leads law enforcement to be more skeptical the next time a woman claims assault, thereby fueling the “she’s lying” myth. Unfortunately, though, sexual assaults that do conform to the prototype reinforce rape myths as well.

Although these women are more likely to be believed and these cases more likely to be prosecuted, giving legitimacy to the prototypical assault and dismissing the atypical assault reinforces the prototype and the rape myths that support it. In the present research, we discuss one way that rape myths are reinforced in our culture. The more rape myths are used in the media, the more accessible they are to those responding to sexual assault victims and the harder it is to eliminate sexual assault.


1. It is difficult to get true estimates on false accusation rates in sexual assault cases. Lonsway and Fitzgerald (1994), in a review of the literature on rape myths, found numbers ranging from 2% to 9% in data estimating falsely reported cases. With any crime, a certain level of subjectivity and uncertainty may be involved in labeling a report a “false report” when allegations are not backed up by sufficient evidence.

However, sexual assault cases may be particularly susceptible to being labeled false reports given the tendencies for law enforcement to employ rape myths and to reduce sexual assault cases to “he said–she said” situations. In the present analysis, because no one besides Bryant and his alleged victim can know who is lying in this case, statements questioning Bryant’s and the alleged victim’s honesty should be equally presented in newspaper articles.

2. It should be noted that recent research has identified some groups that are at a high risk to commit rape, namely fraternity members (Boswell & Spade, 1996; Humphrey & Kahn, 2000) and athletes (for a review, see Benedict, 1998). Therefore, it is possible that a popular athlete such as Kobe Bryant fits people’s prototypical notions of someone who would be likely to commit sexual assault. However, results from Study 1 indicate otherwise.

3. For this article, feminine gender pronouns will be used to refer to the victim and masculine gender pronouns to refer to the perpetrator. Although men are victims of sexual assault (in approximately 10% of reported cases) and women are perpetrators of sexual assault (in approximately 2% of reported cases), the overwhelming majority of sexual assaults are committed by men on women (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1999; U.S. Department of Justice, 2003).

4. The authors of this article consider “endorsement” and “presence” of a rape myth to be equivalent.

In the absence of any qualifying statements to admonish the particular rape myth, “use” of a rape myth in these articles (e.g., suggesting that a woman “asked for it” by her actions) is implicit endorsement. We are not suggesting that any one author’s purpose is explicit endorsement of rape myths; it is our assumption that most journalists believe that they are reporting unbiased “facts.”

5. Both articles are available from the first author on request.

20 Violence Against Women

6. In addition, Brown, Duane, and Fraser (1997) have suggested that pretrial publicity may generate public sympathy for celebrity defendants they are motivated to like. They found that media exposure was correlated with greater beliefs in O.J. Simpson’s innocence, regardless of race and gender of the respondent.

7. Less than 5% of participants answered a 1 (not at all informed) when asked to rate their self-knowledge about the case. Of participants, 24% felt they were “not at all informed” about the alleged victim’s history, and 30% of participants felt that they were “not at all informed” about the physical evidence against Bryant. That participants felt least informed about the alleged evidence against Kobe Bryant is consistent with the data presented in Study 1.


Anderson, C. A., Lepper, M. R., & Ross, L. (1980). Perseverance of social theories: The role of explanation in the persistence of discredited information. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 39, 1037-1049.

Audit Bureau of Circulation. (2004, September 30). FAS-FAX. Retrieved PLS PROVIDE DATE from http://www.accessabc.com Benedict, J. R. (1998). Athletes and acquaintance rape. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Bohner, G., Jarvis, C. I., Eyssel, F., & Siebler, F. (2005). The causal impact of rape myth acceptance on men’s rape proclivity: Comparing sexually coercive and noncoercive men. European Journal of Social Psychology, 35, 819-828.

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