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© Lee Harvey 2012–2020

Page updated 29 April, 2020

Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012–2020, Researching the Real World, available at
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A Guide to Methodology

CASE STUDY Press Reporting of Rape

Natasha Marhia (2008) reported a study of the press coverage of rape. It drew on the critical media analysis of work of Soothill and Walby and made some comparisons with this older study. Marhia's study combined a quantitative content analysis approach with a qualitative discourse analysis, which although she did not refer to it such terms, resembled critical discourse analysis given its concerns with structure, power and context.

Following a literature review that  helped to situate the research and identify key issues, she analysed  sample of 136 news articles in 2006 that reported rapes and other sexual offences perpetrated in the UK by males against females. The reports came from five daily national tabloid newspapers and five daily national broadsheets along with the BBC online site. All sources were 'mainstream'  with national status and extensive readership.

Criteria for inclusion in the sample were that the article had to be a news piece (not a comment or a letter) that described the reported rape or sexual offence and the assault had to be central to the article. The data was then coded and analysed statistically. The statistical picture was compared to what we know about the actual incidence of rape and sexual offences in the UK from the British Crime Survey (BCS) and other sources. A detailed, qualitative content and discourse analysis was then carried out on the sample articles.

Marhia's (2008, p. 4) research identified a press construction of rape that conflicts with research and crime statistics and that has 'a damaging effect on public perceptions of sexual offences and in turn the reporting of, and conviction rates for, sexual offences'.

This construction depicts rape as an outdoor crime at the hands of a monstrous or bestial deviant stranger, who may be 'foreign', and uses extreme violence to overpower a victim. In this construction the female victim must be 'proven innocent' through press reporting of her actions before, during and after the attack, including her unimpeachable conduct, valiant resistance, subsequent helplessness and physical and emotional trauma.
This finding echoes earlier research in this area. The report also explores new and emerging themes such as the press failing to link individual cases of rape and sexual assault to a wider continuum of violence against women; the press tendency to over-report 'false allegations'; and the use of rape cases involving non-British nationals by the press as a vehicle for mobilising xenophobia.

Marhia listed how the research evidence conflicted with rape reporting:

Rape cases which led to a conviction account for 48.5% of news reports about rape, but in reality only 5.7% of reported rapes result in a conviction.

Attacks by strangers account for over half – 54.4% – of press reports about rape, despite the fact that only 8-17% of rapes in the UK are stranger rapes.

The majority – 56% – of rapes are perpetrated by a current or former partner, but these cases are almost invisible in the press, accounting for only 2% of stories about rape.

Although only 13% of rapes take place in public places, these account for 54% of press reports of rape.

The press disproportionately covers rape cases involving excessive additional violence including grievous bodily harm and murder, the use of a weapon or intoxicants, abduction and kidnapping and/or multiple assailants.

Attacks against underage girls are over-reported in the press, while attacks against adult women are under-reported compared with recorded crime statistics.

The statistical analysis identified, inter alia, the position of the story in the newspaper and thus the importance given to the assault, the offence categories of the sample stories, the stage of judicial proceedings and outcomes reported, the victim's age, the location of the offence, and the perpetrator's relationship to the victim. The latter showed that the percentage of the rapes perpetrated by a stranger reported in the tabloids (50%), broadsheets (57.7%) and online (58.3%) were all way above the 8–17% of rapes involving a stranger. Conversely, the assaults by partner or former partner were vastly underreported (at 1.7%, 3.8% and 0%, respectively) rather than the 56% in the crime statistics.

Marhia (2008, p. 27) concluded the statistical analysis by saying:

Through highly selective reporting, the press constructs a profile of rape that contrasts sharply with hard evidence drawn from a wealth of research about the reality of rape. By disproportionately reporting tried and convicted cases, the press profile of rape gives the impression that rapists can be easily identified and brought to justice, obscuring the appallingly low conviction rates and the institutional discrimination which women face in their efforts to seek redress after a sexual attack. Furthermore, the press disproportionately selects cases which conform to the myths about what constitutes a 'real rape':… according to the press, rape is committed outside, in remote or dark places, by strangers who use extreme physical violence to overpower their victims and are particularly likely to prey on underage girls. This reinforces the package of myths in the public imagination and feeds them back into the criminal justice system, meaning that the majority of rapes which do not conform to the stereotype may not be identified as rape, whether by the victims themselves, who may experience confusion and feelings of self-blame, or by the police, members of the jury in a rape trial or the public at large.

The way rape is reported, on a case-by-case basis, Marhia (2008, p. 28) argued, individualises rape and as such 'it is not seen as a social or structural issue involving systemic injustices and discrimination, and almost never as a gendered practice of power and control'. Instead sexual violence is portrayed as an 'anomaly, an unusual crime perpetrated by the monstrous or pathologically evil few', rather than as 'part of the backdrop against which women live their daily lives'.

Marhia presents a closer analysis of 11 cases, examining the discursive techniques deployed, and exploring, inter alia, whose voice is privileged in press reports, the constructions of the perpetrators, the impugning of asylum seekers and the construction of the 'ideal victim'.

In our sample of press reports, the voice of the judge is most typically privileged and afforded authority. This is likely to be both because the judge is an authority figure, and because judges often make sensationalist comments at the sentencing stage of a rape trial. Indeed judges are often cited in the sample articles making comments which reinforce 'real rape' myths. Most often cited are comments which construct the perpetrator as an anomalous, pathologically evil individual, a 'beast', a 'pervert', a 'predator'. …[resulting in] the impression that a man who doesn't fit this stereotype cannot be a 'real rapist'. (Marhia, 2008, p. 29)

For example, she cites an article that appeared in The Daily Telegraph on 4 November 2006 that describes the case of a student President who was accused and acquitted of raping a new first-year student. He had signed a 'no sex' contract due to his role as 'week one rep' but took the intoxicated female student home from a party and 'had sex' with her. She did not consent but he was acquitted of rape. Marhia provides further details from the article, which cites the Student President's indignant comments uncritically and at length, including his excuses for his behaviour and his attack on the police, and refers repeatedly to the victim as a 'drunken girl', thus dismantling her credibility and by endorsing the male's version of events implies that she consented, although her voice is not heard.

The 'moral of the story', according to this article, is for women to avoid the 'dangers of binge- drinking'. However men are not warned that having sex with a woman who is too drunk to consent amounts to rape – indeed the article gives the opposite message, that it is the woman's responsibility to avoid this situation. (Marhia, 2008, p. 33)

Marhia (2008, p. 43) concludes that her analysis reveals that the 'language used to construct the phenomenon of sexual violence, victims and perpetrators produces an altogether unrealistic picture of rape'. The discursive devices used to construct the stereotypes are reinforced by over-reporting of 'stranger rapes taking place outside, involving excessive physical violence and often perpetrated against underage girls'. The result is that females who experience sexual violence may feel uncertain about whether to identify their experience as rape.

Through these stereotypes, through reporting rape predominantly on a case by case basis, and through the failure to explore the wider structural and social context in which these crimes are embedded, the press succeeds in individualising sexual violence and obscuring the continuum of violence against women… By individualising these crimes the press effectively lets policy-makers off the hook, and misses the opportunity to hold them to account by demanding further reform of the handling of rape cases by the criminal justice system and an integrated strategy for addressing violence against women.


Return to Content analysis (Section 5.6.1)

Return to Critical media analysis (Section 5.11)

Return to Critical discourse analysis (Section