Word Choice Crucial When Reporting Sexual Violence

When media reports sensationalize sexual violence or attribute violent crimes to “lovers’ quarrels,” neither victims nor society are well-served. Researchers at an American Psychological Association annual meeting explored why.

The importance of how journalists choose their words when reporting on sexual violence was underscored at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association in San Diego, in a symposium of five psychology researchers who have studied the subject.

Reports of sexual violence make up only about 2 percent of the overall scholarship on journalism and trauma, and methodological flaws sometimes limit these studies. But it is clear that news of sexual crime and violence is a relatively neglected area of research. Studies presented by the panelists represented important contributions to this field of research.

Dr. Sharon Lamb of the University of Massachusetts, Boston presented a study that examined the reaction of focus groups to a selection of sexual violence stories published in Vermont newspapers. Participants in the focus groups included victims, advocates, journalists, and perpetrators. The participants identified several problematic aspects of news coverage on sexual violence, including the tendencies of some reporters to over-dramatize the crime, to include salacious details, and to use language choices that may subtly blame victims.

Susan Haffley, of Fielding Graduate University, presented data from a content analysis that examined framing of newspaper stories of murder-suicides and described problematic language often used to describe such events. Haffley cited examples of news stories that described murder-suicides as “lover’s quarrels” and “arguments,” which, she argued, were inappropriate ways to describe these violent crimes.

An experimental study by Dr. Christina Cantrell of the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center sought to determine if including names of rape victims in newspaper articles alters readers’ perceptions of blame and beliefs in common rape myths. The study found no significant differences in opinions between those participants who read stories containing names and those who read stories referring merely to “the victim.”

The University of Tulsa’s Dr. Elana Newman, chair of the symposium and research director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, challenged psychologists and mental health professionals to establish working relationships with journalists in their communities, and to acknowledge journalists who do exceptional work when covering sexual violence. It is clear that while helpful research has already been conducted, much additional research will need to be done for journalists and academics to better understand the issues and controversies related to news coverage of sexual crime.

Note: Summer Nelson participated in the APA symposium on sexual violence and the media.