The amount of coverage a crime gets in the media often depends on who the victim is.
Crimes against children, for example, get a lot of attention. And as I discussed in a prior column, missing white women often get a disproportionate amount of press.
The same is true to some extent when it comes to the identity of the alleged criminal.
For instance, the press loves to write about celebrities who’ve been arrested. Just look at the onslaught of coverage of actress Reese Witherspoon‘s recent arrest for disorderly conduct.
What if an alleged offender is a member of the military? Do the media give such crimes the same attention as those committed by civilians? Or are these crimes downplayed, perhaps out of misguided patriotism?
Unfortunately, crimes committed by members of the military, particularly sexual assaults, are common.
On May 7, the Department of Defense (DOD) released its annual report on sexual assault in the military. The simple fact that the DOD is required to issue these reports annually says a lot about the extent of the problem.
The 729-page report says that, in 2012, there were 3,374 sexual assaults reported by service members, a 6 percent increase from 2011.
Clearly, sexual assault is a serious, prevalent and persistent problem in the military.
This conclusion was reinforced on May 5—just two days before the release of the report—when Lt. Col. Jeffrey Krusinski was arrested on a sexual battery charge.
The kicker: he was in charge of sexual assault prevention programs for the Air Force.
And to make matters worse, on May 14 the New York Times reported that an Army sergeant who served as a sexual assault and response coordinator at Fort Hood was under investigation for allegations of pandering, sexual contact, assault and mistreatment of subordinates.
The press has done an admirable job covering the DOD report and the various responses to it. But how good of a job did they do covering the underlying issue of sexual assaults in the military?
It’s hard to tell.
The Krusinski case got a lot of coverage. But the alleged assault didn’t occur on base and the victim wasn’t a member of the military. And she reported the incident to the police.
That fact illustrates one of the challenges in covering sexual assaults in the military: the press may simply be unaware that these crimes are taking place.
If the victims only report these crimes to military authorities and they’re handled internally, reporters may have no way of even knowing that these attacks occurred.
Another problem is that these crimes often aren’t reported to anyone.
For example, the DOD report includes the results of a confidential survey in which more than 26,000 members of the military indicated they’d been subjected to unwanted sexual contact in 2012 alone.
When you compare that figure to the number of reported sexual assaults, it’s clear that the vast majority of such conduct goes unreported to authorities.
A toolkit for reporters from the Chicago Taskforce on Violence Against Girls & Young Women says that, according to the Justice Department’s National Crime Victimization Survey, while 46 percent of rapes/sexual assaults in general aren’t reported to the police, that number is even higher in the military—with 86.5 percent of rape/sexual assault cases going unreported.
So if the papers and Internet aren’t inundated with stories on sexual assaults by service members, it’s hard to fault the media.
The documentary “The Invisible War” increased public and media awareness of what it describes as an epidemic of sexual assaults in the military and may have led to increased press coverage of these assaults when they’re brought to light.
However, simply reporting on these crimes isn’t enough.
It’s also important that when reporting sexual assaults in the military, journalists don’t let support for the armed services shade their coverage of these crimes.
For example, the website Take Back the News warns against the use of a “tone of shock and anomaly” when the accused is a member of the military, which sometimes results in the accused being portrayed as patriots rather than criminals.
In fact, when questioned about the Defense Department report, President Barack Obama deemed the Pentagon statistics a betrayal of the uniform that’s “not patriotic.”
Robin L. Barton, a legal journalist based in Brooklyn, NY, is a former assistant district attorney in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office and a regular blogger for The Crime Report. She welcomes readers’ comments.