The Problematic Rape Reporting On ‘This American Life’

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In 2008, an 18-year-old woman was brutally raped at her apartment in Lynnwood, Washington, gagged and bound by an intruder in the middle of the night.

What happened next serves as a harrowing case study in how our culture grossly mishandles sexual assault cases and the trauma they cause.

When the victim, known as Marie, reported her case, people responded with disbelief and even scorn. Marie’s own family and friends, including two of her former foster-care parents, openly doubted her, in part because she seemed too calm when describing what happened. One of those foster-care parents shared her doubts with officials investigating the case, who ended up questioning and bullying Marie so much that she was coerced into telling them she’d made it up. Marie was then charged with a gross misdemeanor for lying to cops, required to pay $500, and forced to attend counseling not for what she went through, but for being a liar. She was called a “whore” and, on the local television news, called out for making up her story.

Two years later, when Marie’s rapist was caught in a different state after attacking four other women, photos of her harrowing sexual assault were discovered. She was vindicated and, finally, a tragically mishandled case was brought to light.

This is the riveting story that was covered on an episode of This American Life. But if the show’s producers are to be believed, what happened had little to do with our insidious rape culture and much to do with, you know, people just being people.

TAL decided to frame the episode, which it dubbed “The Anatomy Of Doubt,” on why and how the people in Marie’s life were dubious about her claims. And rather than questioning the cultural forces that cultivated such doubt, it chalked this response up to nothing more than understandable human instinct.

Take, for instance, this explanation by producer Robyn Semien for why Marie’s former foster parents didn’t believe her:

“They doubted Marie because of something so normal and human. They trusted their intuition about someone they knew really well. It’s hard not to do that. They had a gut feeling that was wrong but felt utterly true.”

Or this moment, later in the episode, when the foster mom who shared her doubts with officials admits she feels guilty about not believing Marie, but also says she still thinks it was pretty much Marie’s fault:

“She needs to realize at some point, and I think she does now, that — OK, I hate to say this. But you know, I mean — OK, now this is going to sound really bad, like I’m blaming the victim. But some of the way that she was acting was part of the reason why it had the outcome that it did. And I am not the only person that didn’t believe her.”

Semien pushes back at one point with “But also, it sounds like everyone who was doubting her didn’t have much information about the way that rape trauma can function. And so is this about the way that she acted?” but otherwise says next to nothing to challenge what amounts to egregious victim-blaming.

The real kicker, though, comes at the very end of the episode, when Marie, in her final words on air, implicitly accepts some responsibility for what happened:

“Marie: I just think that all of the facts and everything needs to be laid out so that they can’t go back and find something, you know, that you didn’t tell them.
Robyn Semien: I know, but you’re not on trial.
Marie: Oh, I know. Right. I’m not really sure how to answer that. It just seems like that’s how everybody is. Really sucks that you have to be on trial after you go through something so traumatic like that. But that’s just how it is and how people think. And that’s what happened to me.”

As listeners, we’re left to believe that rape victims like Marie have a responsibility to prove their case to others, because doubt is the natural byproduct of “how people think.” There is virtually no explicit mention of a rape culture that unfairly places this burden on victims, and nary any implicit references either. The show, for instance, touches on the nature of trauma, but never really explains how and why rape victims, due to biological changes in the brain, may respond in ways that seem unusual — and as such, why it’s deeply problematic to expect that they behave in a certain way. It never notes how extremely rare false rape accusations are. It never discusses a culture of shame and stigma that helps explain why 68% of rapes are never reported to police in the first place.

The show’s fumbling of the story becomes particularly apparent when it’s compared to the reporting of The Marshall Project (in collaboration with ProPublica), which initially covered the story last year and worked with TAL on their segment. The Marshall Project won a Polk Award for their reporting, which includes some crucial components left out by TAL.

Immediately before detailing how Marie’s calm demeanor prompted her former foster parents to doubt her story, for instance, The Marshall Project piece highlights a systemic failure to understand how rape trauma works. It notes that many rape-case protocols and guidelines for police departments are ignored, and points out that in one such ignored guide, investigators are explicitly told they “should not presume that a true victim will be hysterical rather than calm.”

It notes that in rape cases, “the biggest fear isn’t false reporting, but no reporting,” pointing out that only one-third to one-fifth of cases get reported to police because victims fear they won’t be believed.

It states that “the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the FBI stress the need for a thorough investigation before discounting a report of rape. Cops must work as hard to prove a falsehood as they do to prove a truth.”

It describes police ranks as “hierarchical and overwhelmingly male.”

It points out how Marie was never informed that she had a right to an attorney.

And it provides this critical fact: Between 2008 and 2012, the Lynnwood police department dismissed rape cases at a rate five times that of the national average.

In these and other ways, The Marshall Project piece frames the narrative within a broader context — one that shows how rape denial and doubt are not rooted in human nature, but in a patriarchal system that actively oppresses and hurts women. This framing, more than being accurate, also challenges readers to question their own beliefs and actions. TAL’s reporting, on the other hand, leaves listeners feeling inert. What can one do, after all, about basic human nature and instinct?

One could argue, of course, that TAL had less room to dive into big-picture facts and stats. The Marshall Project had thousands of words to explore the case in detail; TAL had only one short hour to focus on a single aspect of the case. But an hour is plenty of time to provide at least some context for what happened — and in any case, that doesn’t excuse the deliberate choice producers made to frame their story as an exploration of how “normal” and “natural” rape doubts are.

As an influential media force (and one, it should be noted, that often does exemplary work), This American Life has a responsibility to report on something as serious as rape with appropriate depth, context, and framing. In failing to do that, it not only ignored rape culture; it actively helped to perpetuate it.

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