Thursday, December 16

False Reporting in the Media (Again): Why it’s such a problem

(I'm reposting this from the Alliance blog. I spent ALL morning finding these stats, and wanted to share a little more widely).

This morning I was saddened to see 10 Google alerts and a lead article on regarding the arrest of a New York City-based TV weatherwoman. An occasional contributor on Good Morning American, Heidi Jones, was recently suspended from her job after being charged by city police with filing a false attempted rape report.
The headlines ranged from: “TV Weatherwoman Charged with Lying About Attempted Rape” (, to “Cops: NYC Meteorologist Lied About Rape” (Fox News) but the stories themselves all told the same story:
“Jones claimed a man attacked her while she was jogging on Sept. 24 and dragged her into a wooded area, only to flee when tourists approached. The same man approached her in the park two months later, Jones told police.  Police soon began to doubt her story, and Jones later admitted she made it up because she was having problems in her relationship and thought it would gain her sympathy.” (
As you can imagine, the response from online commentators and journalist has run the gamut from outrage to barely-concealed excitement.

Because really, what’s more new-worthy and ‘sexy’ than a very public false report rape story?
The problem with all of the attention and excitement is that it detracts from a very real and dangerous issue: the propagation of the myth that women frequently file false rape reports.

In fact, according to various law enforcement databases and research studies I only 2% of rape reports are later found to be false. Other studies have found false report rates of up to 5.6%–but the range of 2-6% corresponds to false report rates for other major crimes such as burglary.
Another important point brought up by a doctoral candidate and researcher at American University is that:
“A primary myth about false rape reports focuses on the belief that women “cry rape” because they are seeking revenge on men who have wronged them in some way. However, according to [studies], the reality is that the vast majority of false allegations “are actually filed by people with serious psychological and emotional problems.” And notably, people who falsely file claims usually do not name specific individuals, but instead “involve only a vaguely described stranger.” These research findings support the theory that people who falsely allege rape do so not out of  desire for revenge against a specific person, but because they seek general attention and sympathy.”
Sounds pretty familiar, right?

Ms. Jones admitted that she made up the assault because she was “having problems in her relationship and was seeking sympathy.” So really what we have here is a individual woman who is likely suffering from psychological and emotional problems.

One woman does not an epidemic of false reports make.

Yet the media attention to this case is likely to be prolonged and unsympathetic. And according to research, this type of unwarranted attention on false rape reports can be very damaging.
“Print media portrayals of rape that are not representative in the aggregate of the circumstances in which rape typically occurs may do little more than reinforce stereotypical notions of what constitutes “real rape.” The types of rape reported in the media tend to be those that have features that are in keeping with the classic stereotype of rape. Media stories may also be presented in such a way as to suggest that the victim precipitated the attack or is making a false allegation.
The same researchers also concluded that the reliance on rape stereotypes and rape myths in media coverage can ultimately have a chilling effect on report rates, prosecution, and conviction rates. They caution that:
“Stereotypical notions of rape have been found to negatively impact rape prosecution. The negative portrayal of both male and female rape victims in the press may have an adverse impact on whether such crimes are subsequently reported to the police. [Ultimately] newspaper articles that frame rape victims’ behaviour in a negative manner may reinforce rape myths and fuel public misconceptions of sex crimes, which in turn may have a negative consequences for a victim’s self-conceptions of his or her experience and the criminal justice’s response to sex crimes.”
While it’s obviously very upsetting to learn that Ms. Jones likely fabricated and then falsely reported an attack, I think it’s clear that the media attention is damaging to both victims and the general public. I think it’s a shame that we expect so little from the media; instead of framing this story in a way that addresses rape myths and the rarity  of false reports, this rather salacious approach is likely doing real harm.