Why Is the Media So Terrible at Covering Stories About Rape?

The fallout from Rolling Stone's decision to backtrack from a story of a brutal gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity house seems to be evidence of problems with the way some news outlets handle the reporting of sexual assaults, especially given Rolling Stone's first instinct was to blame the alleged victim for the errors in reporting the story instead of acknowledging their mistakes. If Rolling Stone's story brought to the forefront the issue of campus sexual assaults, the backpedaling away from the story seems to have started debates about how rape accusations should be handled and considered not only by the media, but by society. This is usually framed as a conflict between those that feel a presumption of innocence, due process and an ability to confront accusers and accusations are vital. And another side which argues those precepts applies to a courtroom, but not society at large, and a climate where sexual assault survivors are comfortable telling their stories and their claims are taken seriously is more important to the way we treat this issue as a culture.

For example, research about false reporting of rape is about as politically contentious as research about climate change. However, studies consistent with FBI data estimate 2 to 8 percent of reported rapes are false. For the sake of argument, I'm going to meet in the middle and peg it at 5 percent. If accurate, it would mean that in every thousand rape cases, there are potentially fifty innocent people labeled a rapist. Fifty people that will have to live with that mark every time they apply for a job, try to get into a university, obtain credit, or anytime someone runs their name through Google. If we have a criminal justice system, where even with a number of safeguards to protect the accused we still convict and sometimes execute people for crimes they didn't commit, should we then take pause before an internet "mob" with none of those safeguards brands someone a rapist?

The flip side to this is an assertion that it's a reflection of society and a valuation of the worth of women when people worry and put the potential suffering of that 5 percent ahead of the misery of the 95 percent of the reported cases, as well as an unknown number of unreported cases. In fact, some argue, as a default, all rape accusations should be believed as a form of cost-benefit analysis, where the societal good of getting rape victims to come forward and seek help outweighs any inconvenience to the accused. And a collective push from an internet cyber-mob when dealing with accusations of rape is not always a bad thing, with many pointing to the rolesocial media played in the Steubenville rape case.

It's into this controversy HBO's The Newsroom waded on Sunday night, with its penultimate episode involving a campus rape subplot that many critics spent the better part of yesterday charging as highly offensive. Aaron Sorkin is considered one of the best writers in his field, but The Newsroom and Sorkin have been plagued by accusations of sexism. And in creating this particular plot point, as well as Sorkin's reaction to the controversy, he seems to have cracked that can of worms wide open, especially if looked at in the bigger sense of how film and television use rape in story. If the news media struggles with how to depict rape in relating the facts of cases, are dramas and comedies tone deaf on the subject?

All too often, rape is not examined as an issue in story, but used for character development and backstory. In that way, it becomes a story point to provide context about a woman's anger, goals and motivation. It's used by writers as a way to create sympathy for female antagonists and other despicable characters. It's used by writers as a way to "break" a good character and (in some eyes) make the character more interesting. And it's something that's prevalent in a lot of fiction. On the one hand, it brings attention to a serious issue and can be portrayed in a realistic way that provides depth to a story. It can become a complex aspect of character's identity that shades the way they look at the world. On the other hand, it can also be a really lazy trope and extremely hacky and maudlin in its presentation. Instead of being fully realized people dealing with trauma, a hamfisted approach can turn the characters into objects to be pitied and left to be little more than a plot device driving the action.

Earlier this year, a sexual assault in HBO's Game of Thrones caused considerable controversyand debates over changes from the source material, whether it was actually rape, and if it was inherently misogynistic. Downton Abbey has depicted a beloved character being viciously attacked, and it's used to examine the contours to the relationship she has with her husband. In ABC's Scandal, the rape of a major character was used as a way to shift the perception of a character from that of a selfish wife using her husband's name and position to being a woman that has sacrificed everything for his advancement. With Netflix's House of Cards, the sexual assault in a female character's backstory informs how she became so ruthless. Rape has been a significant part of shows such as American Horror StoryThe AmericansMad MenSons of AnarchyBoardwalk EmpireThe SopranosTrue BloodBeverly Hills 90210Private Practice, etc., etc., etc., and has even been used in romance stories, going all the way back to the "Luke and Laura" love story in General Hospital.

From Karen Valby at Entertainment Weekly:
They’re scenes all too familiar to any TV viewer: A woman is shoved down, she screams or sobs, her eyes grow wide and then blank as she wills herself anywhere else in the world. Lately the small screen has felt particularly thick with such moments of sexual horror, as writers have been churning out story lines in which our saints, our heroines, and our hard and cruel women too, are raped or forced to relive their nightmare of it. Try to imagine a singular abuse endured by an equivalent number of male characters. And yet it seems whenever a female character needs a juicy arc or humanizing touch, writers fall back on the easy, awful crime of rape. ... Here’s something else to imagine: the idea that there are stories to tell about the sources of a woman’s anger, her ambition and fear, her brokenness and resolve, that don’t involve pinning her under some man’s heaving chest.
The latest episode of HBO's The Newsroom, "Oh Shenandoah," had some serious dramatic problems. There were imaginary ghost dads, the horrible use of a classic folk song, a mishandled death, and a really awful rekindled love story between two characters Sorkin refuses to stop pushing down the viewer's throats. But it was a story element involving campus rape that has drawn much ire.

The new owner of Atlantis Cable News (ACN) is pushing new media integration of the network, and to that end wants more coverage of sensational topics for ratings and to trend on Twitter. To that end, Don (Thomas Sadoski) is ordered to investigate a website where rape victims can anonymously tell their stories for the stated purpose of warning others about sexual predators. ACN wants to bring the operator of the website, Mary (Sarah Sutherland), on air to discuss the site and confront her alleged attacker. Mary is presented as a passionate individual which the system has failed, and has resorted to her website as an avenue for some semblance of justice. Don seems to believe Mary's story, but he hates both the idea of the interview and Mary's website since they run contrary to what he believes is fair. Don argues he has a "moral obligation" to believe in the innocence of Mary's attacker and not accuse people in the media, who have not been charged or convicted of a crime, for fear of the innocent people that may be hurt.

From Bill Carter's interview with Aaron Sorkin at the New York Times:
Most of the time the conflict on the show is about ideas, and frequently those conflicts stoke a lot of passionate debate in the days that follow a broadcast ... I understood going in that there would be backlash — some of it thoughtful, some of it less so — but that’s a bad reason not to write something ... I cast a great actress who feels like our sister, our daughter, our roommate. I did everything I could to make it difficult not to believe her so that Don’s declaration that he’s obligated to believe ‘the sketchy guy’ would be excruciating. Let me put it a simpler way. She’s not a rape victim. She is an alleged rape victim and I wanted to make it harder for us to remember that. It’s easy to side with the accused in To Kill a Mockingbird. I made it less easy last night.
However, the way the scene plays has many unfortunate implications. As far as I can tell, no anonymous rape accuser website like the one depicted in the episode actually exists. The closest thing to it, and the possible inspiration for the story, may be the rape wall at Columbia University. But I think the scene's biggest sin is that it falls into one of the biggest criticisms against the show, which is that Sorkin and the series sometimes drift into mansplaining (e.g., see "internet girl"). There have been many scenes in The Newsroom where men sit down and tell women the way the world works. And there's an element of that with this scene. It's not as if Don doesn't make fair and reasonable arguments. He does, and the scene goes out of its way to portray Don as trying to do what he thinks is the "right thing" for this woman. But there's also a failure to acknowledge the woman's agency, since in the end Don puts his judgment above hers.

Moreover, in the greater scheme of the season, this particular story element is sort of haphazardly used by Sorkin as part of an indictment of new media, and a contrast of old-school, idealistic journalistic ethics versus the anarchy of social media and citizen journalists. The episode draws parallels between "wild packs" on the internet that stalk celebrities (e.g., Gawker Stalker) and the implications of rape victims accusing their attackers in the media. And, to that end, others have argued Sorkin presents victim-blaming as a noble position within that context.

  • Emily Nussbaum, The New Yorker: "Look, The Newsroom was never going to be my favorite series, but I didn’t expect it to make my head blow off, all over again, after all these years of peaceful hate-watching. Don’s right, of course: a public debate about an alleged rape would be a nightmare. Anonymous accusations are risky and sometimes women lie about rape (Hell, people lie about everything). But on a show dedicated to fantasy journalism, Sorkin’s stand-in doesn’t lobby for more incisive coverage of sexual violence or for a responsible way to tell graphic stories without getting off on the horrible details or for innovative investigations that could pressure a corrupt, ass-covering system to do better. Instead, he argues that the idealistic thing to do is not to believe her story."
  • Eric Thurm, Grantland: "There could not have been a worse time for this episode, airing in a week when there really are questions about ethics in journalism, and about how we cover sexual assault and rape in the media."
  • Julianne Escobedo Shepherd, Jezebel: "The most believable aspect of this scenario is that a pompous male journalist would choose to victim-blame a woman who was raped and attempt to justify it with the weak defense that it's about journalistic ethics. (Sound familiar?) The least believable aspect of this scenario is that this woman would entertain Don's bullshit beyond the first denial. Or perhaps she would, but the way the dialogue played out was perfectly shoehorned into Sorkin's apparent notion that laws on the books are more credible than witness testimony, without accounting for how those rules are distorted and applied selectively in an unjust society."
  • Jennifer Gerson Uffalussy, The Guardian: "What The Newsroom, and the actual news, has told women everywhere is that their voices do not exist without being first acknowledged and then substantiated by a man in power – who, by definition, is any man."
  • Libby Hill, A.V. Club: "Aaron Sorkin doesn’t understand who the victim is. He doesn’t understand how empathy works. And he, as a rich, powerful, white man in the United States, doesn’t understand that he is among the most privileged people in the world. 'Oh Shenandoah' tries to assuage our ill-feelings about rape by rampantly defending the rights of famous people from paparazzi, because the complaints of Erin Andrews demand to be heard and validated. This wouldn’t be so troubling if we hadn’t just seen an anonymous college student tracked to her dorm room through rudimentary journalistic stalking and questioned about her rape before being told she shouldn’t tell the world who violated her. Sorkin thinks that women need protecting, especially if they have a target on their back. What he fails to realize is that every woman has a target on her back."
  • Todd VanDerWerff, Vox: "But at the center of the episode's problems was one terrible idea: Aaron Sorkin isn't sure rape victims should be naming their rapists, because somebody somewhere might miss out on a medical school scholarship."
  • James Poniewozik, TIME: "Its arguments about whom to 'believe' in the case of rape accusations were terrible. Its arguments about reporting said accusations were terrible. Its reliance on preachy strawman arguments was terrible. Its cranky obsession with the evils of the Internet was terrible. And it added up—in a final season that began with the promise of the series becoming better and subtler in the end—as a terrible episode even by the standards of the series’ earlier, most terrible ones."

The other aspect to this story is that according to Newsroom writer Alena Smith, Aaron Sorkin yelled at her and told her to leave the writer's room when she objected to this idea.

attribution: Twitter
Sorkin does not dispute Smith's account, but he has released a statement saying he's "saddened" by Smith's comments. In fact, Sorkin feels Smith has violated his trust.
Ultimately I have to go into a room by myself and write the show but before I do I spend many days listening to, participating in and stoking these arguments. As with any show, I have to create a safe environment where people can disagree and no one fears having their voice drowned out or, worse, mocked.

Alena Smith, a staff writer who joined the show for the third season, had strong objections to the Princeton story and made those objections known to me and to the room. I heard Alena’s objections and there was some healthy back and forth. After a while I needed to move on (there’s a clock ticking) but Alena wasn’t ready to do that yet. I gave her more time but then I really needed to move on. Alena still wouldn’t let me do that so I excused her from the room.

The next day I wrote a new draft of the Princeton scenes–the draft you saw performed last night. Alena gave the new pages her enthusiastic support. So I was surprised to be told this morning that Alena had tweeted out her unhappiness with the story. But I was even more surprised that she had so casually violated the most important rule of working in a writers room which is confidentiality. It was a room in which people felt safe enough to discuss private and intimate details of their lives in the hope of bringing dimension to stories that were being pitched. That’s what happens in writers rooms and while ours was the first one Alena ever worked in, the importance of privacy was made clear to everyone on our first day of work and was reinforced constantly. I’m saddened that she’s broken that trust.

Sorkin has claimed The Newsroom is the last thing he will ever do for television. Last night, heparticipated in a Q&A with the Writers Guild Foundation where he defended the episode and expressed the opinion that it was one of the best of the series.

He is quoted as saying "it was the first episode of The Newsroom I thought was really good" and that he felt great about it until he saw the reaction of "vitriol and misunderstanding." Sorkin also said he really dislikes the "terrible inferences" that believe he shares the views of his characters. Though, he didn't exactly state what his exact position is either. One last interesting tidbit from the Writers Guild Q&A, given the reactions above, Sorkin said he believes that if he had written the show under a pseudonym the reaction would be different.

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