Sexual Assault and the Media

With the advent of social media, reporters and the news media are no longer the only ones to publish or broadcast information. Now, anyone who is called on to speak out about sexual assault can contribute to society’s understanding of this phenomenon.

  • The news media are called on to report on sexual assault in their daily coverage.
  • Media coverage of crimes, including sexual assault, has an impact on the knowledge, beliefs, attitudes and behaviours of the public regarding these phenomena.1,2,3,4
  • It is a known fact that beliefs and attitudes supportive of sexual assault play a major role in the existence of this phenomenon and society’s response to it.4,5 For that reason, the media have a part to play in the prevention of sexual assault.4

A media kit on sexual assault

The purpose of this media kit is to raise awareness among media professionals and spokespersons about the importance of publishing or broadcasting accurate information on sexual assault that is free of sexism, prejudice and sensationalism, and to support these people accordingly.

This media kit is thus a work tool that provides media professionals and anyone called on to assume a spokesperson’s role with accurate, up-to-date, and in-depth information on the problem of sexual assault.

Role of the media in preventing sexual assault

  • According to expert consensus, the prevention of violence and sexual assault requires taking action regarding social norms, and the media have a part to play in shaping these norms.1,4,6,7,8
  • Information that is published or broadcast constitutes one of the major channels of influence on social norms regarding sexual assault.
  • According to the World Health Organization (WHO), initiatives focused on transforming social norms supportive of sexual violence are a vital component of strategies aimed at preventing this type of violence.4

Social norms and sexual assault

Social and cultural norms refer to the rules and expected behaviours occurring within a social group. They define what is acceptable or unacceptable concerning a given phenomenon, such as sexual assault; they also influence society’s perception of the phenomenon as well as the way society responds to it.4 From that perspective, social norms supportive of sexual assault and gender inequality, along with a society’s acceptance of myths and biases surrounding sexual assault, constitute social conditions that are conducive to sexual assault.4

Impact of the media on the shaping of social norms concerning sexual assault16

influence des médias sur le façonnement de la norme sociale concernant l'agression sexuelle
Based on the Modèle de façonnement des normes par les processus médiatiques, by Renaud et al. (2007)

Reporting the facts

  • The media are the main information source concerning crime and sexual assault for the majority of the public.9
  • By covering a range of events related to sexual assault, the media can help create greater understanding of what sexual assault is and why it is unacceptable. This approach fosters public attitudes of non-tolerance toward this type of violence.

Deconstructing the myths

  • Given all the information circulating about sexual assault, it can be complicated differentiating between myth and reality. Thus, considering the role played by the media in developing understanding of this problem, it is vital that the media convey information that is objective and free of prejudice.

Understanding a complex issue

  • Sexual assault is a complex, sensitive problem, and covering it in the media can entail a number of issues.For example, it may be difficult to differentiate between various sexual offences or to make sense of all the available statistics.
  • By presenting feature articles on the underlying causes as well as the individual and social consequences of sexual assault, the media can help the public to gain a better grasp of this problem. As a result, the public will be more likely to perceive sexual assault as a social problem rather than as a purely private matter.

Publicizing resources

  • By discussing assistance, the protection of victims, and available resources, the media prompt assault victims, people who have, or who fear having, sexually aggressive behaviour, and their family and friends to turn to aid resources.
  • By talking about resources, the media break down the myth that sexual assault is an individual problem that should be managed solely by the people concerned, namely, the victims, their family and friends, and the perpetrators. The media can thus contribute to reducing the perceptions among victims and perpetrators of being alone and unable to find help.

Impacts of media coverage of sexual assault

  • It is difficult to clearly assess the impacts of media coverage of sexual assault on the general public and society. However, current research suggests that a certain type of coverage of violence and sexual assault in the media could have various negative impacts such as:
    • Fostering a biased perception of the risks of violence and sexual assault.10,11
      For example: the fear that one’s child could be the victim of sexual abuse by a stranger, given that such cases are widely reported in the media. However, the great majority of instances of sexual abuse are committed by a person known to the child.
    • Spreading myths about sexual assault throughout society, which may influence: the perpetration of sexual assault; the reaction of, and consequences for, victims of sexual assault; the reaction of the family and friends of victims, etc.12
      For example: repeated scepticism in the media concerning victims’ allegations of sexual assault could lead the public to believe that several alleged victims have deliberately fabricated stories about their situation, whereas false allegations of sexual assault occur only rarely. This misconception can prompt many victims to remain silent, out of a fear they will not be believed. It could also prompt a victim’s family and friends to doubt his or her allegations.
    • Providing a rationale for laws and crime policies that arebased on a mistaken identification of the causes of the crime and that, for this reason, will prove ineffective in efforts to prevent sexual assault.10,13,14
      For example: the rationale for some laws and policies would appear to be an outgrowth of how the media “personalize” the sexual assault phenomenon to a very great extent; this trend can be observed in public claims for harsher sentences for convicted sex offenders, whereas sexual assault also derives from causes of a community or societal nature.
  • Several experts have argued that media coverage of sexual assault may have repercussions – positive or negative – on victims:
    • Greater news coverage of sexual assault could be a factor that prompts victims to report offences to the police.15
    • In contrast, some journalism practices may cause a decrease in the reporting of offences by victims, who fear that their personal story will be disclosed in detail or will open them up to blame, criticism, etc.

Media coverage of judicial proceedings pertaining to sexual assault: impacts on victims

The various impacts – some positive, others negative – of media coverage of trials for sexual assault highlight the importance of how cases are handled in the media. The Quebec Press Council Magazine interviewed two sexual assault victims whose court cases were the subject of media coverage, and gathered their accounts of their experience with the media. The following two excerpts present both the “upside” and the “downside” of media coverage:

Testimony faithfully conveyed:

“[TRANSLATION] The article was really wonderful. I have nothing but positive things to say about it. The reporter used my testimony as an appeal to other sexual assault victims to report. He talked about the liberating effect that reporting has for victims. . . . He faithfully noted down and conveyed what I meant. I am proud and happy.— Geneviève

Blaming the victim:

“[TRANSLATION] When she went and read the articles on the Internet [concerning the trial of the person who had assaulted her], she was infuriated by the comments she saw. One man wrote that she had made it all up, that the perpetrator was innocent and that Julie would probably go to jail for having lied. She doesn’t understand why this media outlet did not remove this comment. Aren’t they supposed to moderate? Debate over the guilt of the accused occurs before the judge, not at the bottom of an article of seven lines published on the Web. How are the other victims – assuming there are any – who haven’t yet reported going to react?” — Julie

You can consult the entire article on the website of the Quebec Press Council Magazine  (Available in French only)

Last update: September 2017


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  2. Bryant, J. and Zillmann, D. (1994). Perspectives on media effects: Advances in theory and research. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
  3. Everland, W.P. (2002). The impact of news and entertainment media on perceptions of social reality. In J.P. Dillard and M. Pfau, eds., The Persuasion Handbook: Developments in Theory and Practice (pp. 691-727). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
  4. World Health Organization (WHO). London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. (2010). Preventing intimate partner and sexual violence against women. Taking action and generating evidence. Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organization.
  5. Jewkes, R., Sen, P. and Garcia-Moreno, C. (2002). Sexual violence. In E.G. Krug, L.L. Dahlberg, J.A. Mercy, A. Zwi and R. Lozano-Ascencio, eds., World report on violence and health (pp. 147-181). Geneva , Switzerland: World Health Organization.
  6. Dahlberg, L.L. and Krug, E.G. (2002). Violence – a global public health problem. In E.G. Krug, L.L. Dahlberg, J.A. Mercy, A. Zwi and R. Lozano-Ascencio, eds., World report on violence and health (pp.1-21). Geneva , Switzerland: World Health Organization.
  7. Schewe, P.A. (2007). Interventions to prevent sexual violence. In L.S. Doll, S.E. Bonzo, J.A. Mercy, D.A. Sleet, eds., Handbook of Injury and Violence Prevention (pp. 223-240). Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  8. Linkenbach, J. (2002). The Main Frame: Strategies for Generating Social Norms News. Montana State University, 46 pp.
  9. Dowler, K., Fleming, T., and Muzzatti, S. (2006). Constructing crime: Media, crime and popular culture. Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice, 48(6): 837-850.
  10. Chiricos, T., Padgett, K. and M. Gertz. (2000). Fear, TV news, and the reality of crime. Criminology, 38(3): 755-785.
  11. Dowler, K. (2003). Media consumption and public attitudes toward crime and justice: The relationship between fear of crime, punitive attitudes, and perceived police effectiveness. Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture, 10(2): 109-126.
  12. Lonswey, K.A. and Fitzgerald, L.F. (1994). Rape Myths. In Review. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 18(2): 133-321.
  13. Coleman, R. and Thorson, E. (2002). The effects of news stories that put crime and violence into context: Testing the public health model of reporting. Journal of Health Communication: International Perspectives, 7(5): 401-425.
  14. Iyengar, S. (1991). Is anyone responsible? How television frames political issues. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
  15. Boudreau, M. and Ouimet, M. (2010). L’impact de la couverture médiatique des violences sexuelles sur les taux d’agressions sexuelles au Québec entre 1974 et 2006. Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice. 497-525. (Available in French only)
  16. Renaud, L., Bouchard, C., Caron-Bouchard, M., Dubé, L., Maisonneuve, D. and Mongeau, L. (2007). Modèle du façonnement des normes par les processus médiatiques. In L. Renaud, ed., Les médias et le façonnement des normes en matière de santé, Sainte-Foy (Québec): PUQ. (Available in French only)