Why has a rape only “allegedly” taken place?

Editor’s note: This is a translation of an article originally written in Danish based on a Danish study. The conclusions thus apply to a Danish context, and whether or not they could be true for other contexts/languages is not considered here.

When journalists write articles on burglaries, they most often describe them as events that are matter of fact. There is no reason to question whether the victim really had their tv, computer or valuable jewelry stolen. The same goes for robberies – the journalist does not question whether the victim of the crime has actually had their wallet and phone stolen in broad daylight. The same, however, does not apply to sexual assault or rape. Here, the journalist usually makes certain reservations when it comes to declaring whether the rape actually took place. Small words such as allegedly or supposedly like to make their way into the sentences and indicate that we cannot be completely sure that the rape has taken place.

Do you think that these sound like shaky claims that need to be investigated before they are stated? Fortunately, this is exactly what I have done. In a study based on text analysis I have compared the words used in a large number of different articles about rapes, robberies and burglaries, focusing on epistemic and evidential markers. Words that express epistemic modality (Nuyts 2001: 1), e.g. supposedly or probably, can tell us something about how likely a journalist thinks it is that a crime has taken place. Evidential markers such as allegedly or apparently can perform a similar function; these markers actually indicate where the sender gets their knowledge, but many evidential markers tend to have an epistemic extension in certain contexts (Aikhenvald 2004: 6; Mortensen 2006: 25). This means that they are often understood epistemically, i.e. as the sender’s evaluation of the probability of a proposition. This is one of the reasons why allegedly is often perceived as the sender’s evaluation of probability:

En 10-årig dreng er angiveligt blevet voldtaget i den østjyske by Grenå natten til onsdag. Det skriver Østjyllands Politi i et tweet.
(“10-årig dreng voldtaget: 17-årig dreng er anholdt”, Newsbreak.dk, 11. juli 2018)

And the English translation:

“A 10 year-old boy has allegedly been raped in the town of Grenå in eastern Jutland on Tuesday night. This was stated by the police in eastern Jutland (‘Østjyllands Politi’) in a tweet.”
(“10 year-old boy raped: 17 year-old boy arrested”, Newsbreak.dk, July 11th 2018)

The above is an example from an article in my dataset that showcases the use of allegedly (‘angiveligt), which in the context of the article has an epistemic function and thus becomes an evaluation of probability.

Does the press throw suspicion on rape victims?

The claims I made in the introduction began as my own gut feeling about the how journalists write about rape compared to other crimes. It turned out that I wasn’t the only on who had the idea that there could be a difference in language use in articles about rape compared to other crimes.

I found two contributions to the debate by Christian Roar Pedersen (minister and media consultant in Aalborg) and Mette Gjerskov (member of the Danish Parliament for the Social Democratic Party) respectively. They are both of the opinion that the press throws suspicion on rape victims by using words like allegedly in articles about rape. According to the two debaters, this kind of language use is not found in articles about other crimes such as street robberies or burglaries.

To investigate whether the claims made by Christian Roar Pedersen and Mette Gjerskov give an accurate view of the way the Danish media account for rape, I compared 346 articles about rape, robbery, and burglary from July 2015 and July 2018 that I found using the Danish database ‘Infomedia’. I included a wide range of media outlets, ranging from nationwide daily newspapers to local weekly newspapers, web sources and magazines.

What I found

My analysis showed that there are big differences when it comes to language use in articles about rape compared to articles about robbery and burglary. In the articles I analyzed, journalists also used epistemic and evidential markers in articles about robberies and burglaries, but not to the same extent, and there were big differences in how they were used. When epistemic and evidential markers were used in articles about robberies and burglaries, they primarily concerned the perpetrator or other circumstances of the crime. It was thus never the actual crime that was subjected to a probability evaluation.

In the articles about rape I found the opposite. Firstly, the epistemic and evidential markers were used to a significantly greater extent – in many articles several markers were used in the same article or even multiple times in a sentence. Secondly, the markers were used about the crime as an action. For articles on rape from both of the years I examined, the number of epistemic and evidential markers used about the crime as an action was higher than the number of markers about the perpetrator and other circumstances put together. In most articles about rape, the journalists thus indicated uncertainty about whether the crime had taken place or not. Another tendency I found was that many articles about robberies or burglaries didn’t use any epistemic or evidential markers at all. This makes the robbery or burglary seem like a factual event.

What could the explanation be?

Is there a pertinent reason why the language use should be different when it comes to rape? Are there, for example, more false reports of rapes than false reports about robberies or burglaries? A study from the Crime Prevention Council in Denmark shows that the number of false reports of rape in Denmark is at 7,3%. These are the most current numbers available. According to the study, statistics on false reports are counted collectively, and they aren’t usually divided into categories based on the type of crime. Thus, these numbers only exist because the aforementioned study was written in the first place. In the study the authors mention that it is likely that the numbers for false reports of other crimes such as theft are higher due to the incentive for insurance fraud. The same is likely to be true for burglaries, for example. So why are the media not as linguistically cautious when it comes to whether a burglary has taken place or not as they are about rape?

A focus on false rape reports is created by the media

We can speculate that the pubilc view is skewed when it comes to the amount of false rape reports. We primarily hear about rapes through the media, so maybe the media have created a disproportionate focus on false reports of rape even though the actual number of cases is low. In the study from the Crime Prevention Council the authors point out that it is a problem that the media portray false rape reports on a level that is disproportionate to the actual amount of false reports. Something indicates that this might be a possible explanation. I searched Infomedia’s article database and found a significantly higher number of articles about false rape reports than articles about false reports of robberies and burglaries.

false reports diagram

What the exact reasons are for the differences in language use requires more in-depth investigations. On a similar note, it is important to keep in mind that my study only covers articles written in the month of July in 2015 and 2018. The study thus only gives limited insight into the linguistic portrayal of rapes, robberies and burglaries in Denmark. However, the fact that I have seen the same linguistic patterns for both years could point to a general tendency. The answer to the questions posed by Christian Roar Pedersen and Mette Gjerskov is thus affirmative: Yes, the press can be characterized as throwing suspicion on rape victims – if you buy the argument that increased linguistic reservations in articles about rape are a manifestation of suspicion.

Lærke Nørgaard Sørensen holds a BA in linguistics from Aarhus University and is currently working on her MA in communication studies at Aalborg University. This blog post is based on her article in Journal of Language Works, which you can read here (in Danish).

This post was translated from Danish by Hannah Fedder Williams.


Aikhenvald, Alexandra. Y. 2004. Evidentiality. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mortensen, Janus. 2006. Epistemic and Evidential Sentence Adverbials in Danish and English: A Comparative StudyMA Thesis. Institut for Sprog og Kultur, Dansk og Engelsk, Roskilde Universitetscenter.

Nuyts, Jan. 2001. Epistemic modality, Language, and Conceptualization: A cognitive-pragmatic perspective. John Benjamins.

Leave a Comment