Was She Asking For It? - A Teleological Ethical Analysis of News Media Coverage on Sexual Assault

by SimoneDB on April 23, 2017 - 5:09pm

In modern Western society, although sexual assault is one of the most common forms of violence used against women, it remains as one of the most under-reported crimes due to the various actors in our society that perpetuate rape mythology - most notably, the news media. News coverage of sexual assault is presented through a lens that is all too often apologetic on the part of the accused, who tend to be humanized.  In stark contrast, the victims of the crime are commonly characterized as drunken, irresponsible young women who got into trouble or got what they deserved. From the teleological framework, this is problematic because the outcome is one without justice. The perpetuation of rape mythology by the news media further prevents victims from reporting crime and instead, encourages them to internalize their traumatic emotions, thus continuing a large-scale cycle of victim blaming.


Stakes are high for the victim not just in terms of public perception, but also in terms of the law.  In our legal system, the accused always has a constitutional right to a fair trial.  From a deontological perspective, the principle of “innocent until proven guilty” is a categorical imperative that should not be tampered with under any circumstances.  Because the legal system is a reflection of the morality of our society, the news media’s decision to portray the accused more positively than the accuser would not be an unethical one because it is acting within the spirit of a deontological maxim. It is the accuser who has the burden to prove to the jury - and to the public – that she is telling the truth.  Until she can do that, the accused is blame-free.  Although this is one of the most fundamental principles of our justice system, it is important to recognize that in this particular situation, the woman is both the victim and witness. In a Canadian context, the legal right of representation does not apply to victims of sexual assault because their status in a Criminal Court is that of witness to the crime (Penwill 58). Only the rights of the accused are protected through the presumption of innocence and the requirement for proof that is beyond a reasonable doubt (Penwill 4).  But, the latter is extremely difficult to find in rape cases because it involves an intimate act with few to no witnesses other than the victim herself (Penwill 9). Once a woman files a report on sexual assault, her status is reduced to that of witness of a crime, and as a result, her choices become much more limited.  Due to the arduous legal process, many women hesitate to report rape (Penwill 31).


This ethical dilemma is between the rationale behind the deontological maxim to a fair trial pitted against the importance of protecting of victims.  It is pivotal to recognize that the problem with rape culture and victim blaming goes beyond the news media and even the media at large. Rape mythology is a widespread problem that is caused by misogyny and sexism, which have been deeply entrenched in our society for centuries.  Due to the sheer magnitude of the problem, the rigid deontological framework is clearly not effective under these circumstances.  The legal system was not designed to protect the rights of the witnesses (Makin).  The nature of sexual assault crimes makes them hard to prosecute because they are based on the memories and credibility of the accused and the accuser.  Defense lawyers will often attack the credibility of the victim.  However, the nature of memory makes it very hard for victims to account the events of a traumatic experience (Penwill 4). Therefore, consequence-based ethics is a more persuasive framework because it takes into consideration the outcome whereas the deontological framework only considers the rightness or wrongness of an action, even though these actions have terrible outcomes.


The media has an important role to play in the public sphere and the language that ought be used when talking about sexual assault (Protess, Leff, Brooks & Gordon).  Although most mainstream media outlets do not explicitly blame the victim, there are issues with the frames used to interpret accounts of sexual assault.  These frames implicitly encourage the public to foster a sense of sympathy towards the perpetrator, while the victim is fitted into an interchangeable caricature of another drunken girl who was “asking for it”. A perfect example is a July 2017 Washington Post article written by Michael E. Miller on the Stanford University Rape case. Although the article never states that the woman is at fault in explicit terms, the narrative is riddled with implicit accusations, such as “the victim was so intoxicated at the time of the incident, for example, that she didn’t wake up for at least three hours afterward and had a blood-alcohol level more than triple the legal driving limit” (Miller). Or, “after having four whiskey drinks at home, the woman and her sister were driven to Stanford to meet female friends. From there, the young women went to the party. The woman testified that she acted ‘silly’ at the party to make her younger sister laugh, singing loudly and dancing goofily”(Miller).


Furthermore, not only is the victim vilified, the perpetrator is idealized.  The article tells the story of Brock Turner as a young man with an incredible amount of potential whose life was ruined because of one mistake, which was not entirely his wrongdoing, but also that of an intoxicated young woman who should have taken better care of herself.  While the only affiliations to the victim are that of alcohol and irresponsibility, Turner is portrayed as a “baby-faced Stanford freshman” (Miller). According to The Post, the most important information that the public needed to know about Turner was concerning his swimming career. The Post reports that he was in fact “a member of Stanford’s varsity swim team, one of the best in the country. He was also an “All-American swimmer in high school in Ohio, so good that he tried out for the U.S. Olympic team before he could vote” (Miller).  The article focuses on the loss of a career of a criminal, the “stunning fall from grace…of a record-setting swimming prodigy” (Miller), but nothing is mentioned about the emotional trauma experienced by the victim - who’s life has also been fundamentally changed forever – and much less an effort to humanize her and tell her story.  This has very negative outcomes not only in terms of how the public views the victims, but also in terms of how victims view themselves, which prevents them from reporting sexual assault.


In July 2016, the decision of American social news and entertainment media Buzzfeed to publish the Victim Impact Statement, a 12-page account of the experiences and emotions of the victim of the Stanford University Rape case, was an unprecedented one.  In almost all previous sexual assault cases, the limelight of the media had been disproportionately given to the perpetrator. The publication of this statement sparked passionate public outcry on judge Aaron Persky’s lenient sentencing of Turner.  Consequently, Persky was asked not to hear any more criminal cases and was re-located to another division.  Unfortunately, he has since been cleared for misconduct (Lindsay).  That being said, his initial dismissal demonstrated the potential of the media to play a role in shaping positive outcomes not only in influencing the way we “view violence against women and how we change a culture in which the victim is often blamed” (Despoja), but also in the legal system. 


The media ought not create an additional barrier for victims of sexual assault. Although the aforementioned deontological principle is valid, that principle only exists because it is thought to be the best way to bring about the outcome of justice, which in most sexual assault cases, victims do not receive. Moreover, because society already has pre-conceived notions and attitudes on “assigning responsibility for violence against women” (Despoja) onto the victims themselves, women are afraid of reporting their traumatic experiences either because they blame themselves or fear that others might do the same.  Consequently, there are two barriers to justice, the core problem being that of the structure of the legal system, but also a peripheral problem of a media that further impedes women from reporting crime.


Although women have come a long way in the last few decades, society’s response to sexual assault reflects the continuing struggle for victims to obtain justice, and the media coverage affects this response because it is the actor responsible for diffusing information to the masses. It is for this reason that it is significant to discuss how they present the information.  Proponents of deontology would argue that not respecting the principle of fair trial fails the categorical imperative and thus, is not ethical.  However, this principle antagonizes sexual assault victims in a society that already denigrates them.  Thus, by respecting this principle, the media shuts out an already vulnerable group of people. The problem with victim-shaming is that the legal system is in favour of it: oftentimes, the accused does not end up getting sentenced, which makes the accuser look like a liar.  Therefore, when it comes to the media coverage of sexual assault, teleology is the best way to resolve the dilemma because it takes into the outcome of our actions, rather than just the action itself.  Although the current legal system cannot account for the “he said-she said” nature of sexual assault, it is worth it to try.  With the necessary pressure, the system can be adapted to one that ensures that victims receive the justice they deserve.


Works Cited:


Despoja, Natasha Stott. "The Media Is Reporting Rape Stories All Wrong." Huffington Post Australia. The Huffington Post, 14 July 2016. Web. 23 Apr. 2017.


Lindsay, Kathryn, News • Politics • US News, and Photo: Greene County Sheriff's Office/AP/File. "The Judge Of The Brock Turner Case Was Cleared Of Misconduct." Aaron Persky Brock Turner Judge Cleared Misconduct. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Apr. 2017.


Makin, Kirk. "How Canada's sex-assault laws violate rape victims." The Globe and Mail. The Globe and Mail, 05 Oct. 2013. Web. 23 Apr. 2017.


Miller, Michael E. "All-American swimmer found guilty of sexually assaulting unconscious woman on Stanford campus." The Washington Post. WP Company, 31 Mar. 2016. Web. 23 Apr. 2017.


Penwill, Kathryn. Reality Check: How rape mythology in the legal system undermines the equality rights of women who are sexual assault survivors. Publication. N.p.: Legal Deposit - Library and Archives Canada, 2008. Print.



Protess, David L., Donna R. Leff, Stephen C. Brooks, and Margaret T. Gordon. "Uncovering Rape: The Watchdog Press and the Limits of Agenda Setting." Public Opinion Quarterly 49.1 (1985): 19. JSTOR. Web.