Expert Commentary

‘Where there is more rape culture in the press, there is more rape’

Researchers have found a link between journalists’ coverage of sexual assault, the prevalence of rape in society and how seriously police take reports when victims come forward.

Attorney Gloria Allred speaks to the media outside Bill Cosby's sexual assault trial, 2017.
Attorney Gloria Allred speaks to members of the media outside Bill Cosby's sexual assault trial, 2017. (Michael Candelori)

Rape occurs more often in communities where the news media reflects “rape culture” — the tone of the coverage and word choices can be interpreted as showing empathy for the accused and blame for victims, according to a new study published in the Quarterly Journal of Political Science.

“We find that where there is more rape culture in the press, there is more rape,” write the authors of the study, Matthew A. Baum and Dara Kay Cohen of Harvard Kennedy School and Yuri M. Zhukov of the University of Michigan. “In areas with more prevalent rape culture in the press, police receive more frequent reports of rape, but make fewer arrests in response.”

The researchers examined all rape-related news stories published by 279 newspapers in the United States between 2000 and 2013. Most were local news organizations, but they also included newspapers with national audiences, such as the New York Times and Washington Post.

Baum, Cohen and Zhukov also looked at law enforcement records to help determine whether a relationship exists between rape culture in news coverage, people reporting rape to the police and arrest rates.

Overall, they found that news stories rarely demonstrate evidence of rape culture. About 3 percent of the 310,938 news articles analyzed contain any of the four components that the researchers say are characteristic of rape culture:

    • Imply victim consent. For example, these news articles “are more likely to mention a ‘sexual’ ‘relationship’ between the victim and the accused, particularly in an educational setting (‘student,’ ‘teacher,’ ‘school’),” the researchers write.
    • Use victim-blaming language. For example, stories that can be interpreted as blaming the victim “focus on the circumstances of the incident, particularly those that might cast doubt on the victim’s physiological state (‘drink,’ ‘parti[es]’).”
    • Show empathy for the accused. For example, this coverage that can be interpreted as showing empathy for the alleged perpetrator tend to use words associated with sports – for example, “player,” “team” and “football.” These types of stories are unlikely to refer to the alleged perpetrator as a “suspect.”
    • Question the victim’s credibility. For example, these articles “emphasize the victim’s account of events (‘accus[e],’ ‘alleg[e]’) during adversarial court proceedings (‘defens[e],’ ‘prosecutor,’ ‘attorney’),” according to the study.

The news coverage most likely to have these characteristics is concentrated within certain regions of the country — primarily the Mountain states, parts of central California and the upper Midwest. The 100 counties with the highest level of coverage reflecting rape culture are in California, Iowa, Minnesota and North Carolina, the study shows.

The researchers found that there were higher numbers of reported rapes in counties where a larger proportion of the news coverage contained evidence of rape culture.

According to one analysis, there were 93 percent more rape reports in counties where more than 3 percent of the coverage in a given year reflected rape culture, compared to counties where less than 3 percent of coverage reflected rape culture.

The researchers also discovered that rape culture in news coverage is most common during the arrest and prosecution phases of the criminal justice process.

Cohen said newsrooms should take the findings seriously.

“News stories — and the words and phrases used to describe rape victims and perpetrators — can have a significant impact on the public’s perceptions of norms about what is acceptable or excusable when it comes to sexually violent behavior,” she told Journalist’s Resource in an email. “More responsible reporting that avoids rape culture language can affect real world behavior.”

Here’s what else the study found:

  • There’s also a link between the volume of rape coverage and reported rape cases. “A standard deviation rise in the local number of stories about rape … is associated with two additional reported rape cases per 1,000 residents in a county-year,” the researchers write.
  • News coverage containing elements of rape culture tends to focus more on the people involved in the case — for example, a student or sports team — and less on the severity or criminal nature of the incident.
  • Stories lacking evidence of rape culture focus more on investigations and judicial proceedings. They often use words such as “suspect” and “sentence” and seldom include contextual language such as “drink” and “night.”
  • News coverage is “much less likely to reflect rape culture in areas where single women are more important to newspapers’ bottom lines. Where a higher-than-average proportion of readers were single women, there was far less rape culture in local newspapers than would be expected by chance.”

In terms of volume of coverage, here are some other key takeaways:

  • The median newspaper printed a total of 52 news articles and editorials about rape between 2000 and 2013.
  • The Washington Post and New York Times provided the greatest amount of coverage of rape and rape-related issues. Each published more than 20,000 articles and editorials during that time.
  • Of the 279 newspapers included in the study, 143 ran fewer than 10 stories about rape between 2000 and 2013.

Looking for more research on sexual assault? Check out our collections of research on rape on college campuses and the health consequences of sexual assault.

Here are some other resources:


This copyrighted photo is being used with permission from the photographer, Michael Candelori



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