Monday, February 20, 2012

If we lived in a "rape culture," how would the Max Nicastro story be reported?

Max Nicastro, a defenseman on the BU men’s hockey team, was arrested after being accused of sexual assault by a female student. The investigation is continuing. 

We frequently make the point rape claims are typically assumed to be true based on nothing more than an allegation, regardless of whether the people doing the assuming know anything about the incident, the accuser, or the accused.

If ours were a "rape culture," how would we expect the Nicastro story to be covered? We'd assume Mr. Nicastro is innocent, that his accuser is lying, and, in fact, we'd blame the accuser.
So how is the story being covered?  The way these stories are typically covered, which is exactly the opposite of the way we'd expect in a "rape culture." These stories are not covered with objectivity. They assume the male's guilt. And it happens in story after story after story. It is grossly unfair to the presumptively innocent men and boys who've been accused, and whose names are often splashed all over the news for the titillation of a public that wallows in tales of sexual misconduct.

A television reporter named Jennifer Eagan reported this: "Police say the assault happened on campus."  That pretty much ends it, doesn't it?  Why would police say an assault happened if it didn't?  And why would a news reporter run with that unless it was true?

The fact is, in case after case, charges are brought on the basis of nothing more than a plausible allegation before any investigation, and the police have no idea what really happened. That's the nature of a sexual assault claim, which almost always involves private activity. Yet, members of the news media typically repeat what they are told by police. This is problematic because once charges are brought, police rarely ever reveal weaknesses in rape cases while an investigation is ongoing (that's what made the DSK case so unusual) due, among other things, to fears of compromising cases that the district attorney eventually might want to bring to trial. (Example: police knew almost immediately that there were problems in the Hofstra false accuser's story, but the news media continued to scare the public about the four arrested minority young men right up until the time of the recantation.) On top of this, the defendant rarely ever talks to the news media because he doesn't want to incriminate himself.

The result is stories that start like this: "Police say Joe Smith brutally raped a Boston University student last night." And then, the news media makes sure to get a reaction quote from a scared or angry member of the public about the "rape."  The public is left to conclude one thing: a rape occurred, and Joe Smith is a rapist. The trial is over even before it has begun.

Jennifer Eagan's report followed the playbook used by television reporters in the Hofstra case and a thousand other rape cases. It's time to retire that model, for the sake of the presumptively innocent. Ms. Eagan should start by reading this:

With respect to the coverage of the Nicastro case, one news report starts in this manner: "After the second case of sexual assault in two months, many students at Boston University are questioning whether the alleged behavior of the school's hockey players reflects the team."

The comments of persons quoted in the news stories about this incident do not leave much room for the possibility that Mr. Nicastro is innocent.

One said this: "It doesn't shed good light on the hockey team at all," Student Ryan Lagoy said. "I didn't know they were arrested yet." 

Another:  "That's something any student athlete needs to think about," Student Mike Gonzales said. "your reputation, your school's reputation, your team's reputation."

Another: "Disappointing seems like a weak word to use because, for me, it's just terrible that a person did that," said one student.

The Dean of Students said, “My concern on a much larger level is that we have students on this campus who don’t know how to treat each other. We have students who have been in situations where they are sexually assaulting others. I want to make sure we engage all our students in thinking about and understanding the serious nature of such allegations.’’

The news coverage also makes sure to mention the other sexual assault charge against a teammate of Mr. Nicastro, and to speculate whether there is a pattern of abuse in the entire hockey program at the university. The Boston Globe made the point that it's unusual to have two claims with respect to one team: "Other than Nicastro and Trivino [the other accused hockey player], fewer than five of BU’s 33,000 students this academic year have faced charges related to sexual assault, according to a school official."

It is, of course, almost certain that the Boston Globe would never cite that same statistic to make the point that rape is not rampant at Boston University.  That its reporters use it to smear by innuendo, and unbridled conjecture, an entire sports program should be a concern to that newspaper's editors. We have no idea about either case cited, and it is grossly unfair to paint the entire program as a cistern of sexual misconduct.

We follow these cases very closely at FRS and find it endlessly perplexing that the news coverage of rape allegations often includes an assumption or an implication of guilt. We suspect it's human nature to believe what people tell us, and an allegation of rape adds a visceral element that disgusts the person hearing the news (we've reported on story after story here of vigilante misconduct where wrongly accused men or boys are beaten and even killed because of angry reactions to rape claims).  It is one of our tasks here to remind the news media that it needs to rise above the emotions commonly experienced by the public whenever a woman cries "rape."
It is painfully obvious that the news media is more interested in its ratings and readership than in being fair to someone like Max Nicastro.  Until the news media can report these incidents in an objective manner, free of assumptions of guilt, the only solution may be anonymity for men and boys accused of sex crimes.