How the media contributes to underreporting of sexual assaults


by Dan Lucas

A number of years ago my wife Rachel was the victim of a violent sexual assault by a stranger – the perpetrator is still in prison.

Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB) recently interviewed Rachel in response to a press release about Safer Oregon, a nonprofit organization that she started to advocate for self-protection options for crime victims.

When Rachel testified at the state legislature, she wasn’t required to “prove” that she was a rape victim. KATU and KPTV did stories and didn’t ask Rachel to “prove” that she was a rape victim. OregonLive and the Hillsboro Argus didn’t ask Rachel to “prove” that she was a rape victim when she wrote opinion pieces for them.

But OPB did.

The request for “proof” had a chilling effect on my wife. It terrorized her and brought back an aftershock of the panic attacks she’s experienced over the years, and it felt re-violating.

Regardless of how outrageous their request for “proof” was, we tried to accommodate them. We came up with a way to give OPB “proof” that Rachel was a rape victim, while still protecting Rachel’s safety and privacy. We agreed to show the proof to an OPB attorney after they signed a non-disclosure agreement. We then learned that “proof” wouldn’t be enough – they would need to see details, and not just their attorney.

I’ve been reflecting on why this would be such a challenge for OPB – the need for sensitivity for a rape victim’s confidentiality and privacy – and I think it may be as much an industry challenge as an OPB challenge. We have been quietly horrified at how the media has mishandled the confidentiality and privacy of the recent Ohio rape victim, and even at how the media have been apologists for the rapists. That was followed by NBC’s recent demonstration of contempt for sexual assault victims. It may be a sensitivity that many in the field of journalism are still developing.

This problem is discussed in a 2005 toolkit on Confidentiality and Sexual Violence Survivors that Lewis & Clark Law School put together using a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice: “This historical mistreatment of rape victims can be seen lingering today in the widespread disregard of sexual violence survivors’ confidentiality.” The 2005 toolkit goes on to note “While all crime victims have rights and interests in confidentiality, sexual violence victims have pronounced interests in privacy.”

It shows that no matter how much progress we’ve made in some areas in society, we still have a ways to go in other areas. It’s actually one of the things that motivates Rachel – she knows how hard this is but chooses to do it anyway because there are so many who can’t. It’s why she had the courage to make her report to the police and agreed to testify against the rapist – because she knew that if she didn’t then some other women would have to go through what she went through.

The combination of being willing to report the rape, being willing to testify and then having the rapist convicted and serving time in prison is extremely rare. The Rape Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) reports that “only about 3% of rapists ever serve a day in jail.” This rarity may further explain why this has been a learning experience for OPB.

I don’t know what the OPB editors will decide to do with the story, but in a way if they decide not to do Rachel’s story, it will be more authentic. It will be one more time that a rape victim’s voice will have been silenced due to privacy concerns. It will parallel what happens with rapes not getting reported. As the 2005 toolkit says “Sexual violence experts agree that confidentiality and privacy concerns are the most significant reasons why sexual assault crimes go unreported.”

We need for our media to get better at this. With the second worst rate of rape and sexual violence against women in the nation, Oregon can’t afford to have sexual assaults go unreported.

To read a reply to this article by OPB News Managing Editor Eve Epstein, click here and look at the comments under this article as it appeared on OregonLive. Ms. Epstein confirms the facts of this article, and she defends and attempts to justify OPB’s request for “proof” and details from a rape victim, and she defends OPB’s unwillingness to sign a non-disclosure agreement to protect a rape victim’s privacy in order for OPB to see “proof”. In short, she acknowledges and defends how the media contributes to the underreporting of sexual assaults – a system where “only about 3% of rapists ever serve a day in jail” and a system which results in Oregon having the 2nd worst rate of rape and sexual violence against women in the nation.