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What the Media Should Know About Abuse

By Jill Gruenberg, CCASA Blogger

For those that live in a community with an attentive media presence, the coverage of sexual assault and domestic violence cases can be problematic. The simple reality is that each and every person who reads an article or opinion piece in the paper has the potential to become a member of a jury in that specific case. In addition, everyone contributes to the social climate and the norms of behavior that their community accepts, and everyone could be in the role to act as a bystander or support to survivors of violence against women.

The difficult truth in instances of domestic violence, and even more so in sexual assault, is that most acts of abuse go unreported to law enforcement.  Findings from the National Violence Against Women Survey in 1998 found that among women over the age of 18, approximately one-fifth of all rapes, one-quarter of all physical assaults, and one-half of all stalking perpetrated against female respondents by intimates were reported to the police(Tjaden & Thoennes, 2000).

Even more frustrating than the prevalence of underreporting, is what happens to victims when they have made the difficult, courageous, and often frightening decision to report and the consequences, or lack thereof, faced by most perpetrators. Sadly, the reporting of sexual assault is unlikely to lead to an arrest and prosecution. According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, out of every 100 rapes, 46 would be reported to the police, 12 would result in an arrest, 9 would be prosecuted, 5 would lead to a felony conviction, and only 3 rapists would spend a single day in jail.  The belief that justice for a victim can and will be found within the criminal justice system when an assault occurs is at best misinformed and naïve.

Let’s contrast this dismal conviction rate with the research examining the legitimacy of most sexual assault and domestic violence allegations. Despite the common myth that “woman cry rape” even when it may not be true, the prevalence of actual false reporting in cases of sexual violence is low. For example, a study by Lisak, Gardinier, Nicksa, and Cote of sexual assault cases in Boston from 1998-2007 found a 5.9 percent rate of false reports. Similarly there are multiple government agencies that report that only between 2% – 8% of sexual assault reports are determined as false. So why are so many perpetrators never held accountable for their crimes?

The reality is that in most domestic violence and sexual assault allegations, the perpetrator, the perpetrator’s friends and family,  the defense attorneys, the media, and even well-meaning outsiders within the community will engage in either an intentional or unintentional pattern of victim-blaming. Attacks on a victim’s credibility, or simply claiming that the victim is lying, are common tactics used by abusers to deny or minimize the abuse, evade responsibility for the abuse, and/or blame the victim for its occurrence.

Lundy Bancroft writes that abusers commonly characterize their relationship as mutually abusive, if they acknowledge any behavior problems of their own at all. Under close investigation, however, most domestic abusers, even those who use relatively low levels of physical violence, are revealed to involve extensive patterns of verbal degradation, psychological abuse, and other types of cruelty.

What the media should know about abuse

Another point consistently raised to undermine a victim’s credibility is to focus on or allege that there are inconsistencies in a victim’s account of the abuse. This tactic equates the idea that inconsistencies are indicative of proof that the incident didn’t occur. However, victims who do report may and often do give inconsistent information, due to the significant amount of psychological trauma they have experienced and the neurobiological effects of this trauma. It is important to recognize that if there are inconsistencies in a victim’s story this is not proof that the incident didn’t occur, but that it might actually be very consistent with the typical manifestation of survivor of abuse.

Just as our court system holds that defendants are “innocent until proven guilty”, the media should have an obligation to treat victims with fairness, dignity, and respect. This requires that victims be allowed to live in an environment in which they are safe to report abuse free from a climate of disbelief or the even more damaging atmosphere of victim-blaming.

Jill Gruenberg has worked for 7 years as the Advocacy and Prevention Program Coordinator for RESPONSE: Help for Victims of Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault in Pitkin County. She is grateful to MESA: Moving to End Sexual Assault for the wonderful introduction to the field of advocacy and working with sexual assault survivors.

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