Abstract: Talking (or not) about Sexual Violence: Newspaper Coverage of Justices Thomas' and Kavanaugh's Confirmation Hearings (Society for Social Work and Research 24th Annual Conference - Reducing Racial and Economic Inequality)

Talking (or not) about Sexual Violence: Newspaper Coverage of Justices Thomas' and Kavanaugh's Confirmation Hearings

Friday, January 17, 2020
Liberty Ballroom J, ML 4 (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
* noted as presenting author
Millan A. AbiNader, MSW, PhD Candidate, Boston University, Boston, MA
Kelsi Carolan, MSW, Doctoral Candidate, Boston University, MA
Margaret M.C. Thomas, MSW, Doctoral Candidate, Boston University, Boston, MA
Background and Purpose: The ways in which sexual violence is portrayed in the media contributes to communities’ understanding of violence and can influence survivor outcomes. In the past few decades, several advancements to laws, services, and research’s understanding of sexual violence have taken place. The parallel cases of Justices Kavanaugh’s and Thomas’s confirmation hearings gives us an opportunity to measure if and how the cultural zeitgeist has shifted around issues of sexual violence. This study sought to answer two questions: (1) When a supreme court nominee is accused of sexual violence, has how the mainstream media discusses the nominee, the accuser and the violence in newspaper headlines changed? To what extent and how? (2) Are there differences in how the mainstream media characterizes the nominee and the accuser within and between years in newspaper headlines? How? Methods: Headlines about the sexual violence accusation and confirmation hearing that appeared between the first public announcement of the accusation and the day after the confirmation were collected from eight major U.S. newspapers in 1991 and 2018, resulting in a dataset of 373 headlines from 1991 and 249 from 2018. Qualitative thematic analysis was used to examine characterizations of the accuser, nominee, and violence. Chi-squared analyses were used to compare rates of themes, codes, and word choice between the two years. Results: While less victim-blaming and minimization of sexual violence was seen in the 2018 headlines, newspapers continued to avoid naming the sexual violence. The characterizations of the nominee, accuser, and violence became depersonalized in 2018, focusing on politics rather than the people and issues at hand. Conclusions and Implications: In an era of increased awareness of sexual violence due to the #metoo and #timesup movements, newspaper headlines continued to avoid naming sexual violence as violence in 2018, as they did in 1991. The depersonalization of the violence and the two people involved in 2018 compared to 1991 likely reflects a highly politicized and divided American public.Despite the broadly heightened attention to sexual violence that current movements have sparked, our analysis of comparable cases in 1991 and 2018 suggests contemporary language about sexual violence and the survivors and perpetrators of sexual violence has not changed to reflect an increased response to survivor healing and perpetrator change. Rather, shifts in language suggest survivors and perpetrators may be politicized as tools for parties and politicians to debate larger issues or stake political positions.