When reporting on campus sexual assault, male journalists devote insufficient coverage to alleged victims’ stories in print media, where women’s voices are already grossly outnumbered.
This argument is the focus of new report (PDF) from the Women’s Media Center, which concludes that a supposed dearth of female journalists covering campus sexual assault has resulted in a dearth of crucial stories from (alleged) victims of sexual assault.
The report, titled “Writing Rape: How U.S. Media Cover Campus Rape and Sexual Assault,” examined 940 articles on high school and college sexual assault written between September 2014 and August 2015.
The stories were culled from 12 “top-circulation U.S. newspapers and wire services,” including the Associated Press, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post.
Fifty-five percent of these stories were authored by men compared to 31 percent by women, proving that “coverage is significantly skewed toward the bylines and voices of men.”
Furthermore, the report found that the stories written by women paid greater attention to the damage inflicted on alleged victims, while men—insensitive and biased in favor of the accused—focused more on “campus proceedings.”
In a statement accompanying the report, Women’s Media Center President Julie Burton urged the media to “take a hard look at where it stands on this kind of critical work and figure out how it plans to move forward in a more equitable way.”
The unsubtle implication here is that women are better than men at covering sexual assault because they empower alleged victims by telling their stories.
This may well be true, and it makes sense that a women’s advocacy group would arrive at this conclusion. But the study’s call for “more equitable” coverage in the media is, in fact, not equitable at all.
First, the study doesn’t tell us what percentage of all male reporters and all female reporters their sample represents.
“In order to conclude that the problem is assignment, which is what the authors seem to believe, we’d have to know what proportion of reporters are men versus women,” Linda LeFauve, Associate Vice President for Planning and Institutional Research at Davidson College, told The Daily Beast.
LeFauve debunked a 2002 study by sexual assault expert David Lisak, which has been widely cited as the model for the emerging theory that rapists on college campuses are serial predators.
Speaking to The Daily Beast, LeFauve noted that the 31 percent of women journalists whose stories were examined in the study may represent a large percentage of all women journalists. If this were true, more women would have been assigned to cover sexual assault than men, which would make the study’s numbers completely misleading.
“Whether men are disproportionately assigned depends not on the percent of stories written by them, but on the percent of men writing the stories,” said LeFauve.
In a thoroughly reported article challenging Emily Yoffe’s extensive critique of The Hunting Ground, Jezebel’s Anna Merlan argues that confirmation bias is “poison for journalists.” It led her to defend Sabrina Erdely’s fabricated UVA gang rape story in Rolling Stone—“incorrectly, vehemently, and in total error.”
That error has “informed the way I approach every story since,” Merlan writes (She also accuses Yoffe of confirmation bias in favor of the accused in The Hunting Ground.)
The Women’s Media Center study affirms the power of confirmation bias: The authors conclude that their research “clearly shows how the gender of the journalist affects what story is told, and without diversity in the newsrooms, we are not getting the whole story.”
In other words, the media’s coverage of sexual assault is skewed in favor of the accused because there are more men writing about it than women. If more women were writing about campus sexual assault, readers would be more likely to get “the whole story.”
The authors write: “The voices of those who say they have been victimized and are willing to speak out—often a difficult decision, and one that can result in open mudslinging, shaming, and trolling—are not being given the space and consideration they deserve.”
We all have pre-existing biases, and it can be difficult for journalists to disregard them when reporting on emotionally fraught issues like sexual assault.
But we are failing as reporters if we don’t confront and challenge them in our work. Indeed, it was confirmation bias that led Sabrina Erdely to compromise her journalistic integrity—to rely solely on “Jackie,” an unreliable source, when accusing UVA of covering up a heinous, felony crime.
The fantastic irony of this new report is that it encourages confirmation bias in the media, failing to recognize the link between confirmation bias and obfuscating or distorting truth.