(How) Can We Talk About Rape?

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The fabric holding this nation together wears away with each passing second. What used to be the thread of principle is now replaced by consumption and consumerism.

Such claims are not foreign to Dr. Kumi Silva, Assistant Professor of Communication at UNC-Chapel Hill. These statements were the topics of UNC’s roundtable discussion, (How) Can We Talk About Rape?. Silva argued that consumerism and consumption allow society to thrive on a relative culture. Relativity hinders our ability to recognize the current state of rape discourse – which says that strides have been made, but fails to recognize that there are more to be made. Women and their sexual autonomy have progressed; yet, language and actions continue to reinstall their marginality in today’s media. Silva presented several advertisements from the last decade to illustrate her point. Each of these advertisements serves as a reminder that sexual violence is as prevalent in today’s media as it has been in the past and that these depictions are casually accepted as much today as they were back then.

So, how is this possible? Dr. Barbara Friedman, Associate Professor at the UNC School of Journalism and Mass Communication, suggests the news plays a large role in sustaining the relative culture.

The news media sensationalize sexual assault cases. Their formulaic headlines and coverage portray sexual assaults as romantic stories gone astray. The coverage then becomes a gatekeeper to myths involving sexual assault. If the role of the news is to inform society, then how can we expect the ideals involving relative culture to change? Myths regarding sexual assault coerce journalists to reiterate the same, monotonous narratives and produce unfair coverage. Coverage then becomes definitive, as journalists report one case of sexual assault and then never return to the overarching issue. Between the language and short-lived coverage, journalists perpetuate the notion of progress. Cases of sexual violence are in today’s news, but were overlooked years ago. The current discourse argues this is progress. However, this impression skews news coverage of sexual assault. Sexual assault is more than breaking news. Coverage cannot end with what has occurred, but must bring the issue full circle. Dr. Friedman proposed several ideas to improve the coverage and discussion of rape and sexual assault in the news.

Understand Myths: Preconceived narratives about sexual assault dominate the news. By learning the facts behind the myths, journalists avoid narrowly framed news stories and deter insular attitudes. Understand the breadth of sexual violence – fact and myth – and journalists will withstand the lure of unfair coverage.

Consider Training: Journalists are ill-equipped to cover cases of rape and sexual assault. Incorporating training programs to prepare journalists for such cases would allow them to learn the language of sexual violence and lean how to use it appropriately.

Follow Up: Sexual assault is more than breaking news; it is a part of a greater issue worth more attention. Journalists should view cases as a means to continue the conversation regarding sexual violence. Reporting the survivor’s progress, as opposed to ending coverage at the act, would emphasize the full impact of sexual violence as well as the often lengthy healing process. Note that not all survivors would welcome such attention. However, others may encourage it for the sake of discourse – and these opportunities should not be overlooked.

The media influence thought, telling society what to talk about and how to think about it. If the mainstream media is not equipped with the tools to discuss sexual violence, then the relative discussion regarding sexual assault will persist. As gatekeepers to knowledge, journalists have the power to alter the way we talk about rape.

N’Yaisha Aziz is our Social Media Intern. She works on a variety of outreach projects for education and advocacy.

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