This paper was written for Dr. Thornton's MMC 6206 Ethics in
Communication Management class.
Sexual Violence and the Impact of the Media:
University of North Florida
MMC 6206: Ethics in Communication Management; Dr. Brian Thornton
Summer A 2020
Modern news media managers need to follow the framework of Ralph Potter Jr.’s Potter Box to change the narrative around sexual violence and rape culture to create safer environments for victims and to put an end to the promotion of rape culture.
According to RAINN (the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), there is an average of 433,648 victims (ages 12+) of rape and sexual assault each year in the United States (RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), Victims of Sexual Violence: Statistics). The news media is one of the largest perpetrators of rape culture in the United States. This is due to the amount of influence they have over the citizens of whom are very loyal to them. The media's choice of the language, images, and stories shared are going to greatly affect the lives of the victims and cause them to be the largest influence on rape culture. Media managers should be held just as accountable as journalists are to “Seek the truth and report it” and to “Maximize truth and minimize harm.”
Sexual Violence and the Impact of the Media:
With the ever-evolving media landscape, it has become more important than ever that media managers lead their teams with an ethical mind. Media managers and journalists must act with ethics and morality at the forefront of their reporting and storytelling. Not only will this help them to follow the journalistic ethics of seeking the truth and reporting it and to maximize truth and minimize harm, as laid forth by the Society of Professional Journalists, but it will also ensure they are protecting the lives of those involved in their stories.
The protection of victims and their families is especially important in the cases of sex crimes. As stated by Camille Aroustamian in her journal “Time’s Up: Recognising sexual violence as a public policy issue: A qualitative content analysis of sexual violent cases and the media,” she identifies that “news media play an important role in public perception of events” (Aroustamian, 2018). The way that media managers choose to share stories and how journalists write stories will greatly impact the way audiences will believe situations took place and how to treat victims. In cases where the stories are in regard to sex crimes, it is extremely important that they follow their ethical responsibilities so as to not cause additional harm to victims.
In Claire Gavelin’s dissertation “Assessing the Impact of Media on Blaming the Victim of Aquaintence Rape,” she points out that in cases of sexual assault or rape, reporters will personalize the attacker, yet only refer to women by pronouns and nouns. Reporters will also often share personal facts about victims, leading to an increase in likelihood that victims will be blamed for their own assault (Gravelin, 2016). When journalists and media managers participate in these actions, they are failing to perform their ethical duties. Not only do their actions perpetuate rape culture, they are failing to follow their ethical guidelines.
The way that journalists and media managers can both ensure that they are remaining ethical in their reporting of sex crimes is by following the framework laid out in the Potter’s Box. The purpose of Ralph Potter Jr.’s Potter Box is to be a framework through which ethical decision making should be made. For journalists and media managers, the Potter Box should be the basic framework they use in order to share ethical and honest stories. If journalists and media managers pay attention to the Potter’s Box and define all facts of a case, remaining professional in their reporting tactics, follow their ethical principles, and remain loyal to their citizens they can successfully and ethically report on sex crimes without causing any harm. If media managers follow the framework of the Potter Box, they ensure that they are remaining ethical in their covering of sex crimes.
With ethical guidelines available from places like the Ethical Journalism Network and The Society of Professional Journalists as well as frameworks such as The Potter’s Box, there is access to all the tools needed by journalists and media managers to ensure that they are not only performing ethically and professionally in their coverage but that they are taking into consideration the impact they have on citizens as well. With an internet full of valuable, accurate, and reliable resources, as well as plenty of places to hear directly from victims of sex crimes, there is no longer any excuse for journalists to not cover stories of sex crimes ethically. The Potter’s Box can be especially helpful for journalists and media managers to begin to ethically and morally understand how to cover cases of sex crime. Media managers and journalists alike should use these guidelines and framework in order to both seek the truth and report it and to make sure that they are maximizing the truth and minimizing harm.
The framework of the Potter’s Box and the ethical guidelines laid out by the Ethical Journalism Network and The Society of Professional Journalists are all available with the click of a mouse or tap of a phone. No longer can journalists blame misinformation or miseducation for their harmful coverage of sex crimes and perpetuation of rape culture journalists are remaining ethical and professional, but in terms of sex crimes it ensures that the media is not promoting rape culture.
Definitions: The sharing of all facts accurately and honestly
The first model in the Potter’s Box is definition. This step is meant to define the situation; Break down the story and show all parts of it. This step not only defines situations, but it can influence how educated audiences are in regard to sex crimes (as well as any other crime they cover). In any crime it is important for journalists to share the facts, but this is especially true for sex crimes.
In the United States, a sexual assault occurs every 73 seconds (RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), Victims of Sexual Violence: Statistics). Sexual assault covers a wide range of attacks, it can be anything from “inappropriate language, probing, pinching, patting, and other forms of harassment, [and to generalize] ‘sexual assault’ typified by the worst-case assault of rape” (Besley, Peters, 2018). When reporting on sex crimes, news media will either call the crime a ‘sexual assault’ or ‘rape,’ however they do not go into detail on the specific type of assault. This can make sex crimes seem small and insignificant, as if they are on the same level of a break-in or robbery. Not only will this have sex crimes seem insignificant, it could cause the victims to feel as if their trauma is not being considered.
The issue with this language choice is the way it can belittle the gravity of the crime to audiences. When reporting on sex crimes, it is important to share the severity of the crime the same way one would a murder or kidnapping. By downplaying the severity or using language that does not share the full story, it is not educating audiences on the accurate terminology and seriousness of the crime. This choice of language is harmful because it can excuse the act of the assailant and put the blame onto the victim. “Our news media almost seems more concerned with discrediting the legitimacy of rape than with trying to tell the stories of the survivors” (Kramer, 2016). Language and definition might not always be synonymous, but it is important that they play hand in hand when it comes to reporting. In order to define what exactly happened in a case and what the statistics are.
It is the job of the news media to rework how they cover sex crimes. As laid out in the first step of the Potter Box, news media should focus on sharing the most important facts of the crime as well as using accurate terminology and statistics when defining acts of sex crimes stories. This will not only help prevent the spread of misinformation in regard to sex crimes, but it will also help prevent the re-victimization of victims due to the image portraying them as the cause of their own assault—as is often done in the media.
Values (Professional): The use of framing:
When a victim of a sex crime is recovering from their attack, they are continuously faced with having to relive their attacks by those around them. Not only do they have to prove that they were the victim of a crime to police, family, and friends alike, but they also have to prove they were not at fault for their own victimization to the media. It is the news media that is often the main source of their re-victimization. Aroustamian uses Chinenye Nwabueze and Fidelis Oduah’s definition of re-victimization: “Media re-victimization refers to the ‘use of words and framing to create an impression that victim has somehow brought the assault upon herself whether it’s through revealing clothing or being in the wrong place at the wrong time” (Aroustamian, 2018). The media is often the worst cause of re-victimization due to their tendency to frame victims as being at fault for their own assault.
Not only can the tactics media managers and journalists use when covering sex crimes be extremely dangerous, but it is also very unprofessional. Per the second step of the Potter’s Box, the values used by journalists are extremely important to remaining ethical. Professionalism and moral acts are two of the values stressed in the Potter’s Box values framework. Journalists must remain professional in their covering of crimes, not allowing their own biases to affect the views of the audience. However, journalists often seem to be falling short of remaining professional in their reporting of sex crimes.
The main way journalists fall short of being professional in their reporting of sex crimes is their framing of victims. According to Gravelin, how the media portray(s) sexual assault may have detrimental downstream consequences for how individuals interpret sexual violence and victims of sexual assault (Gravelin, 2016). When journalists frame victims by giving additional and personal details about the victim, such as sharing how many drinks they might have had prior to their assault, inquiring about past sexual experiences, or questioning the type of clothes they were wearing during the assault they are misdirecting the blame. By sharing these details, there is an increase in the likelihood that the public will question the role the victim played in their assault or even straight out blaming the victim, rather than blaming the assailant. The sharing of this information is harmful. News media are not sharing all of the facts of the case nor the important, relevant facts—instead choosing only to share the ones that make the victim seem at fault. This is both unethical and fails to follow the structure of the Potter Box’s value step.
The framing tactics used by the news media plays an important and dangerous role. As Gravelin points out “Framing techniques [used by the media] ...have the ability to define the subject of interest as an issue and assert the “correct” side of the debate, without the audience realizing it.” (Gravelin, 2016). News media also effects how their audiences visualize rape and rapists. Gravelin also points out that when news media and film alike cover rape or sexual assault trials, they tend to portray rapists one of two ways: 1) Strangers with mental illness or devious sexual drive or 2) As innocent men who are lured in by sexual, devious women who then want to blame the man after the fact. Between the myths encouraged by film and advertising and the encouragement of rape culture in the news media, victims of sexual assault and rape are re-victimized through the media (Gravelin, 2016). Audiences who trust the media will see the way the media frames rape victims as being at fault of their own attacks and believe it to be the truth. They will also believe rapists to only fall into these two stereotypes and therefore not believe stories of acquaintance, familial, date, or marital rape. It is their use of framing that perpetuates rape culture and encourages audiences to blame the victim of the crime, rather than the assailant.
Journalists' roles are to seek the truth and report it and to maximize truth and minimize harm. When they act unprofessionally, however, they are doing neither of these things.
To remain professional and moral, journalists must move away from using framing tactics and instead cover stories of sex crimes with direct facts and lean away from speculation. This is where they can implement both the first and second steps of the Potter’s Box: defining the case by sharing the exact facts and sticking to their values by remaining factual and moral. Rather than questioning the role of the victim in their attack or offering sympathy towards the assailant, journalists should follow the values framework in order to remain professional. By sticking to reporting straight facts of the case, defining the terminology and statistics of the case, media managers and journalists can ensure they are not participating in harmful framing tactics on the victim.
Principles: The ethical rules of journalism:
The third step in the Potter Box framework is principles. The principle frameworks require that professionals follow the ethical rules of their career and apply them to the situation they are facing.
According to the Ethical Journalism Network, the six ethical rules of journalism are 1) truth and accuracy, 2) independence, 3) fairness and impartiality, 4) humanity, and 5) accountability. The Society of Professional Journalists also lists out ethical rules to follow: 1) seek truth and report it, 2) minimize harm, 3) act independently, and always 4) be accountable and transparent (“The Elements of Journalism,” 2020). When news media fail to follow these ethical rules and standards, they can cause serious harm. Not only in the perpetuation of rape culture, but in the revictimization of survivors. Rather than sharing their own biases, inaccurate statistics, or negatively framing the victim’s journalists and media managers should use both of these guidelines. Not only will they be ensuring that they are being ethical, but they are remaining professional as well.
In Susanna R. Barber’s “The Big Dan’s Rape Trial: An Embarrassment for First Amendment Advocates and the Courts,” she identifies that most victims who have to go through trials often experience a “second rape;” Second rape, she states, is when “rape victims [describe] their traumatic ordeals of not only testifying in front of courtroom crowds but also of knowing that their testimonies, and perhaps even their faces, would be broadcast locally and maybe nationally” (Barber, 1985). Journalists who participate in the “second rape” of victim fail on following the ethical rules of fairness and impartiality, humanity, and accountability. They are not following the framework of the Potter’s Box and are therefore causing more harm to victims than helping them. They are failing to “Maximize truth and minimize harm.”
In order to follow the Potter’s Box, media managers must ensure that their journalists and their selves are following the five journalistic ethical rules. When covering stories of sex crimes, especially ones that require a trial, media managers and reporters need to tread lightly. Journalists must cover sex crimes with: 1) truth and accuracy, ensuring that they are giving the most important and honest facts about the crime that occurred, 2) independence, not acting on their personal biases or political/religious beliefs, 3) fairness and impartiality, making sure not to attack the victim or sympathize with the attacker, choosing only to focus on the absolute need-to-know facts of the story, 4) humanity, remembering that no matter what their personal beliefs are or what the beliefs of the company is that they’re covering human lives, and 5) accountability, knowing that their words and actions are going to play an important role on both the perception of the audience and the lives of the victim(s). The Society of Professional Journalism states that “Ethical journalism strives to ensure the free exchange of information that is accurate, fair and thorough. An ethical journalist acts with integrity” (“SPJ Code of Ethics,” 2020). The Society also stresses the absolute importance for journalists and media managers to “show compassion for those who may be affected by news coverage. Use heightened sensitivity when dealing with juveniles, victims of sex crimes, and sources or subjects who are inexperienced or unable to give consent. Consider cultural differences in approach and treatment” (“SPJ Code of Ethics,” 2020). There are many different guidelines that journalists and media managers can use to follow the professional framework of the Potter’s Box.
If media managers and journalists stick to the seven ethical guidelines laid out by both the Society of Professional Journalists and Ethical Journalism Network, then they can ensure that they are remaining professional and moral. By sticking to these guidelines, and therefore sticking to the Potter Box framework, they avoid causing a “second rape” of the victim and remain ethical, more, and professional in their coverage.
Loyalties: Loyalty to the public:
Journalists and news media are very often considered the voice of the public. Audiences turn to them in order to help them learn what is happening around them and understand facts, but they also rely on them to help form opinions. In Meg Dalton’s article “Is the news media complicit in spreading rape culture?,” research shows that in locations where media perpetuates rape culture, there are more cases of rape (Dalton, 2018). It is the job of journalists and media managers to protect, to minimize harm. If they continue to spread rape culture and use harmful framing tactics, they are not remaining loyal to the public—they are instead causing harm to the public.
The American Press Institute identifies journalists’ loyalties as being towards citizens first, “A commitment to citizens is an implied covenant with the audience and a foundation of the journalistic business model – journalism provided “without fear or favor” is perceived to be more valuable than content from other information sources. Commitment to citizens also means journalism should seek to present a representative picture of constituent groups in society. Ignoring certain citizens has the effect of disenfranchising them” (“The Elements of Journalism,” 2020). Citizens are loyal to their news media, and therefore media managers and journalists, and will believe the facts shared by them and take on their biases or points of view. Because of this, it is crucial that journalists and media managers alike take their influence into consideration.
An example of how loyal citizens can be influenced by media managers is in the 2012 Steubenville Rape Case. When media reporters covered the case, they either said nothing about the victim and instead sympathized with the rapists or they implied the crime was the recording of the rape and not the rape itself. This coverage became the community’s viewpoint (Thacker, 2017). To ensure that they are being loyal to the citizens and not encouraging negative, harmful influence journalists and media managers must monitor the language they are using and prevent personal biases influencing their coverage.
Honesty and accuracy are just as important in the loyalty stage of the Potter’s Box as it is in the defining, values, and principles stages. “Journalists should be as transparent as possible about sources and methods so audiences can make their own assessment of the information. Even in a world of expanding voices, “getting it right” is the foundation upon which everything else is built – context, interpretation, comment, criticism, analysis and debate. The larger truth, over time, emerges from this forum,” (“The Elements of Journalism,” 2020). If journalists and media managers can stick to the actual facts and statistics of a story and remain honest in their coverage, they can ensure that they are remaining loyal to citizens—they are not isolating, negatively impacting, or participating in re-victimization of a victim or encouraging harmful beliefs to their audiences.
Storytelling and informing the public is an important part of journalism but remaining professional and ethical should always be more important. No matter what the case, media managers and journalists need to stick to ethical priorities. Reporters (and by default their media managers) are the voice of the public, the watchdogs, and it is crucial that they acknowledge the gravity of their impact. “Journalism has an unusual capacity to serve as watchdog over those whose power and position most affect citizens. It may also offer voice to the voiceless” (“The Elements of Journalism,” 2020).
The Potter’s Box gives the perfect framework media managers and journalists need in order to remain ethical. With the Potter’s Box—along with the guidelines created by the Society of Professional Journalists and Ethical Journalism Network—journalists and media managers have plenty of resources available to them to help them ensure their work is accurate, moral, and ethical.
As Thacker points out in her article “Rape Culture, Victim Blaming, and the Role of Media in the Criminal Justice System,” “media shapes the way people think about social problems (such as sexual violence) and for many people, media is their only source of information…[this] is problematic because unless people have other experiences outside of the media that help share their opinions, they have difficulty critically evaluating the media’s credibility” (Thacker, 2017).
In the past, media has always “seem[ed] to often be more focused on finding a person to blame to make the story more interest…[in cases of sexual assault] this means blaming the woman for the clothes she wears or for the number of people she’d slept with in the past” (Kramer, 2016). However, with the rise in social media giving victims a platform to share their stories and help educate the public on factual statistics on sexual assault, the way media managers and journalists share stories on sex crimes is being forced to change. Gone are the days where media could use harmful language and framing tactics in sex crime stories, now they are beginning to be being held accountable for their coverage by victims who have found safe spaces to speak out.
Social media and the internet have created a safe space for victims where the news media failed them. Cheyanne Kramer’s “Media coverage of sexual assault in the face of the Stanford rape case" article breaks down just how dangerous the news is to create a safe space for assault victims, and how social media is changing that landscape (Kramer, 2016). Now, victims of sex crimes are using social media platforms such as Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr to speak out about their attacks and how it has impacted them throughout their life. Hashtag movements like the #MeToo and the #TimesUp Movement are changing the views and narratives around and about sex crimes and victims. In the past, media managers failed victims in their coverage of sex crimes through their framing and language use, but in the modern day there is no longer an excuse for this. With social media changing the narrative around sexual crimes, it is time for journalists to follow this trend and rework how they are choosing to cover sexual crimes.
However, news media now have the tools and resources to ensure that they are covering sex crimes ethically and honestly. The ethical guidelines have been available for journalists and media managers for years (The Society of Professional Journalists’ ethical guidelines, for example, has been around since the 1920’s), but it is now time they actually begin to use them. No longer do they have the excuse of participating in the spread of rape culture. There are also resources such as the “Reporting on Sexual Violence” document created by the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. This documentation offers multiple sources that is available for media to use when reporting on sexual assault or rape cases. These sources are documents like the “Reporting on Sexual Violence Tip Sheet” created for journalists to assist in sharing accurate statistics on sexual violence and “How News is ‘Framed,’” an article from the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma which offers research on sexual violence that is often left out in news reports. These 21 documents give resources to reporters working on sexual crime stories in order to accurately and respectfully cover them. These resources are meant to help journalists stay ethical and honest in their reporting while also making sure to protect victims from being re-victimized by the media.
With frameworks like the Potter’s Box, the ethical guidelines from places like the Ethical Journalism Network and The Society of Professional Journalists, statistics, and documentation created by accessible, valuable, and reliable resources, there is no excuse for a lack of professionalism or failure to cover stories ethically. The Potter’s Box can help journalists and media managers begin to ethically and morally cover cases of sex crime.
The steps laid out in the Potter’s Box ensure journalists are remaining ethical and professional, but in terms of sex crimes it ensures that the media is not promoting rape culture. If journalists and media managers follow the guidelines and ethical rules laid out in this paper, they will no longer be engaging in harmful actions when covering sex crimes. Journalists and media managers can specifically use the Potter’s Box to ensure they are accurately and honestly covering the story while not blaming the victims. It helps hold themselves accountable and ensure they are being a helpful voice of the people. It is important for journalists and media managers both to always remember that “Because “news” is important, those who provide news have a responsibility to voice their personal conscience out loud and allow others to do so as well. They must be willing to question their own work and to differ with the work of others if fairness and accuracy demand they do so” (“The Elements of Journalism,” 2020). To be a fair, honest, and ethical voice of the public and to make sure that they are creating positive narratives and avoiding the spread of biases that can cause extremely harmful narratives amongst citizens.
When covering a sex crime, journalists and media managers can follow the four simple rules laid out for them by the Potter Box as the frame for their story: By looking at the defining features of the story, they can ensure that they are breaking down the story and showing all parts of it—especially in sharing factual and helpful statistics and details on sexual crimes; Then going on to their journalistic and moral values, they are not using any harmful language or framing tactics that will cause victims to undergo a “second rape” (as defined earlier in this paper); With access to resources like The Society of Professional Journalists and the Ethical Journalism Network, journalists and media managers have plenty of access to the ethical guidelines that should be the principles that professional journalists should apply them to the situation they are facing; Finally, they must remember that their loyalty is to the citizens and that they are voice of the public—and therefore need to be held responsible for their impact on formed opinions.
Aroustamian, Camille. “Time's up: Recognising Sexual Violence as a Public Policy ...” ScienceDirect, 2020, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1359178918303495.
Dalton, Meg. “Is the News Media Complicit in Spreading Rape Culture?” Columbia Journalism Review, 26 Oct. 2018, www.cjr.org/analysis/news-study-rape-culture.php.
"Five Principles Of Ethical Journalism - Ethical Journalism Network". Ethical Journalism Network, 2020, https://ethicaljournalismnetwork.org/who-we-are/5-principles-of-journalism.
Gravelin, Claire R. “ASSESSING THE IMPACT OF MEDIA ON BLAMING THE VICTIM OF ...” Https://Kuscholarworks.ku.edu/Handle/1808/22396, 6 June 2016, kuscholarworks.ku.edu/bitstream/handle/1808/22396/Gravelin_ku_0099D_14763_DATA_1.pdf?sequence=1.
"Media coverage of sexual assault in the face of the Stanford rape case." UWIRE Text, 14 June 2016, p. 1. Gale Academic OneFile, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A455091001/AONE?u=jack91990&sid=AONE&xid=9a7281a0. Accessed 19 May 2020.
Susanna R. Barber, The Big Dan's Rape Trial: An Embarassment for First Amendment Advocates and the Courts, 7 Comm. & L. 3 (1985).
Thacker, Lily K. (2017) "Rape Culture, Victim Blaming, and the Role of Media in the Criminal Justice System," Kentucky Journal of Undergraduate Scholarship: Vol. 1 : Iss. 1 , Article 8. Available at: https://encompass.eku.edu/kjus/vol1/iss1/8
“The Potter Box: A Philosophical Tut.” The Potter Box | A Philosophical Tut, dtc-wsuv.org/jcohen/tools-for-ethical-decision-making/potter-box.html.
“Reporting on Sexual Violence.” National Sexual Violence Resource Center, 2018, www.nsvrc.org/sexual-violence-reporting-tools.
“The Elements of Journalism.” American Press Institute, 15 July 2019, www.americanpressinstitute.org/journalism-essentials/what-is-journalism/elements-journalism/.
“SPJ Code of Ethics - Society of Professional Journalists.” Society of Professional Journalists - Improving and Protecting Journalism since 1909, www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp.
“Victims of Sexual Violence: Statistics.” RAINN, www.rainn.org/statistics/victims-sexual-violence.