WASHINGTON – In 2006, a woman publicly accused one of the most famous and beloved men in America of raping her two decades earlier. Her story lingered at the fringes, fitfully reported. Soon enough, it went away altogether.
Two weeks ago, the same woman, Barbara Bowman, repeated the story about Bill Cosby she told in 2006. This time, the news media’s reaction was wholly different. The story triggered an explosion of coverage, which led other women to emerge with (or retell) similar stories, which led to even more coverage.
Nothing changed in the details of Bowman’s story between 2006 and Nov. 13, when her first-person essaywas published on PostEverything, a commentary section of the Washington Post website. But something else seems to have changed during that time: the news media’s willingness to report on allegations of rape.
Once reluctant to document uncorroborated claims of sexual violence, the news media has reshaped its approach – and rapidly.
Rape allegations are more likely to be covered in the media and to be treated with greater nuance and deference when they are, say people who follow the issue.
The retelling of the Cosby story was preceded a few weeks earlier by a swirl of sexual-battery allegations made by at least three women against Jian Ghomeshi, a Canadian radio personality with a following in the United States. Ghomeshi was fired by the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.
Last week, Rolling Stone published an extraordinary investigation into an alleged gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity party in 2012. The story included hair-raising details about the alleged crime, although it didn’t name the alleged victim, the accused or any witnesses. Nevertheless, like Bowman’s story, it ignited a media firestorm, which led university President Teresa Sullivan to suspend all fraternity activity at the school until January.
Each of these cases was widely reported before any criminal charges had been filed — or even while a police investigation was ongoing. News organizations have traditionally been reluctant to report claims of criminal behavior in the absence of legal action. The stakes were considered particularly high in reporting sexual misconduct: A wayward allegation can cause permanent damage to the accused’s reputation and invite legal action.
But that may have been then.
“I think there has been some change,” said Jaclyn Friedman, executive director of Women, Action and the Media, a nonprofit group that seeks gender justice in media portrayals. “You still see some victim-blaming coverage.… But I see a lot more credible, credulous coverage [of sexual violence issues] in a lot of mainstream places.”
Friedman and others credit social media with revolutionizing the way the mainstream media approaches issues involving rape. “There’s a lot more pushback [from the public] when the media gets it wrong,” she said. “Media outlets just can’t ignore it” when their approach is criticized on Twitter or Facebook. “Social media gives people the tools to do that, and we didn’t have that until very recently.”
In fact, some say the virtual nonreaction to Bowman’s claims in 2006 might have been very different had social media been around to propel them far and wide. Emma Carmichael, the editor in chief of Jezebel, a women’s website, mentions Anita Hill, who accused then-U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment in 1991. “I can’t imagine that [a woman making the same claim] in 2014 would be put on trial like Anita Hill was,” Carmichael said.
Jezebel last week broke the story of the alleged rapes of three Oklahoma high-school girls by a boy who was their former classmate. The families of the girls say they were hounded out of the school by classmates who taunted them about the alleged rapes.
“There is a general willingness to take rape allegations more seriously now,” Carmichael said. “There’s more willingness to listen and allow for complexity in what happened.”
Some of the credit for this goes to feminist activists and bloggers who’ve changed the cultural “myths” and even the language surrounding sexual violence, said Jessica Valenti, a columnist for The Guardian and co-author (with Friedman) of “Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape.” Formerly academic concepts such as “rape culture,” “victim blaming” and “slut shaming” are mainstream now; rape victims are now described in media accounts as “survivors.”
Valenti isn’t ready to pat the media on the back, however; she notes that some media accounts focus on the alleged victim’s behavior rather than the alleged perpetrator’s. She cited a 2011 story in the New York Times about an alleged gang rape in Texas in which the alleged victim, an 11-year-old girl, was described as dressing “older than her age, wearing makeup and fashions more appropriate to a woman in her 20s.”