The Media Still Won’t Use ‘Bill Cosby’ And ‘Rape’ In A Headline



Bill Cosby, an alleged serial rapist who has been accused of sexual assault by more than 20 women, acknowledged in a 2005 court deposition that he purchased a sedative drug with the intention of incapacitating women whom he wanted to force to have sex with him. At the time, he admitted he has slipped the drugs to at least one woman.

The court documents, which were first published by the Associated Press, suggest that the comedian pursued a method of drug-induced sexual assault that tracks closely with the allegations made against him by more than a dozen women.

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At this point, a long list of people say that Cosby drugged them and assaulted them — accusations that Cosby has largely declined to comment on over the past decade. “Don’t accept a drink from Bill Cosby; who knows what’s in it!” has become fodder for several female comedians.

According to the Associated Press, the 2005 deposition marks the first time that Cosby has gone on record admitting that he’s used drugs for this purpose. The mainstream media’s coverage of the revelation, however, has largely downplayed the non-consensual nature of the act, describing this type of assault as “sex” instead of “rape”:

The Associated Press:

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USA Today:

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The Washington Post:

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It’s true that allegations of sexual assault are often difficult for the media to figure out how to cover. Complicated ethical issues arise when reporters are trying to decide how to fairly describe an alleged crime that hasn’t been convicted in a court of law — an issue made even trickier by the fact that rape is notoriously underreported and underconvicted.

It’s also true that the media doesn’t always strike the right balance here. Major outlets have been repeatedly criticized for downplaying the seriousness of rape, focusing on details that wind up making the story too sympathetic to the alleged perpetrators, or implicitly casting blame on the alleged victims of the crime.

Media ethicists agree that using the terms “rape” and “sexual assault” to describe alleged acts of non-consensual sexual violence is an important journalistic distinction. Particularly because rape is about power, and not about sexual pleasure, using “sex” as a shorthand misrepresents the potential crime. “Sometimes writers minimize the trauma of rape by describing it as sex or intercourse if the rape doesn’t involve the kind of physical violence that requires medical attention,” Poynter, which provides guidance for journalists, cautions.

This dynamic is perhaps exacerbated in media coverage about Cosby, a beloved entertainer who continues to perform even as eerily similar allegations pile up around him. Many critics have become frustrated that, despite the fact that dozens of women have come forward to accuse the comedian of drugging and assaulting them, there’s still somewhat of a shadow of doubt about whether he’s guilty of any of those crimes. Despite the sheer number of accusers, it’s somehow still possible to brush them aside. “Forget these women,” Cosby’s former Cosby Show co-star, Phylicia Rashad, said earlier this year. And when the alleged crimes against them continue to be obscured, it’s easier to do that.


Reprinted with permission from Think Progress, a branch of The Center for American Progress