Last week I wrote about the way Ben Roethlisberger’s latest sexual assault scandal has been handled by the news media. In the piece, I pointed out that many columnists had failed to acknowledge the seriousness of the rape accusations. One of the columnists I cited in the post, The Atlantic‘s Ta-Nehisi Coates, responded to my criticism the next day in a piece that drew many comments:
I think I have some sense of why this whole conversation might be frustrating. Rape has a psychological element that thrives on shame. In our justice system the burden is always on the accuser, but that burden falls especially hard when there are significant disincentives to reporting the crime, and testifying about it…
He followed this post with a mea culpa entitled “Those Who Tell Don’t Know”:
I think the take-away, for me, is that this a post that should have stayed in my head, and off the page. We all have our musings, and the kind of conversation we might have over beers with friends. But That’s very different than posting something on the Atlantic’s website…
For me the salient facts are as follows: I have no idea what happened, and in such an instance, it’s almost never a good idea to start publicly riffing. Rape is a serious accusation, and a kind of crime that presents a specific problem to those who like to bat these kind of things around. I’m not convinced that my contribution to the conversation—absent of any real facts—actually helps anyone, or clarifies anything
Coates’ response is heartening, and speaks to his integrity as a journalist. It is an important move because media skepticism of sexual assault and rape accusations has the potential to add to rape’s stigma. 60 percent of rapes are never reported and, as Coates said, “Rape has a psychological element that thrives on shame,” which likely plays a role in the vast underreporting.
When someone does come forward with allegations of sexual assault and is met with either criticism or indifference from members of the media, the shame associated with rape becomes even more entrenched. What emerges is a vicious cycle that ultimately allows the majority of rapists to walk the streets without ever being charged.
I would like to thank Coates for acknowledging the shortcomings of his initial analysis. In doing so he sends the important message that trivializing rape allegations is dangerous and unethical. It is my hope that other journalists will take notice.
Follow Ms. coverage of sexual violence issues here.