Dismal Steubenville coverage

The media can, and must, do better when covering assaults

It isn’t just CNN.

Over the past few days, there has been a lot of anger directed at the cable network, after a reporter called the two convicted Steubenville rapists “young men that had such promising futures, star football players, very good students” and an anchor seemed to be more sympathetic to the young men than the 16-year-old victim. A Change.org petition asking the network to apologize now has over 260,000 signatures.

As Keith Darling-Brekhus wrote in an op-ed in the San Francisco Examiner, “What CNN’s all star news cast did not bother to say is that while these rapists may get out of juvenile detention in just a year or two after brutally raping a girl, she will likely suffer emotional trauma for years to come… . What about her promising future? Or is she irrelevant?”

But CNN was not alone in showing the boys more sympathy than the victim. And it absolutely wasn’t the worst case. In a 20/20 online piece in advance of the verdict, there was this bizarre paragraph (the highlights are mine):

Just as the season was gearing up late last summer, two Big Red football players were accused of participating in the rape of a 16-year-old intoxicated girl with friends documenting the alleged crime through cellphone pictures and video. The social media frenzy took on a life of its own, with reports going as far as calling the incident a “gang-rape” of an unconscious girl. In reality, prosecutors contend that Trent Mays, 17, and Ma’lik Richmond, 16, used their hands to penetrate her while she was too drunk to consent. By Ohio law, such a crime constitutes rape, as it does in many places.

This is horrifying. Basically, this paragraph says that people on the Internet were going crazy and calling the all-night assault on this young woman a “gang rape,” when “in reality” it was only digital penetration. Except, oops! Ohio considers digital penetration to be rape. So it seems she was gang raped after all. When the facts (like what the law says) contradict the picture a reporter is trying to paint—but the reporter goes ahead and paints it anyway—then that is a clear example of bias.

The story goes on to say that the girl was “one of the more tipsy teens” present and quotes one of the rapists as saying “It just felt like she was coming on to me.” The infamous photo showing the victim unconscious and being carried by her arms and legs is portrayed in this story as “a joke.” And did I mention that the piece starts off by saying that the trial “is a cautionary tale for teenagers living in today’s digital world”? As if the problem is that the degrading Tweets and videos led to the arrest and downfall of a couple football players, instead of the problem being the nauseating spectacle of the boys and their friends celebrating the humiliation of a teenage girl.

The 2,500-word piece is billed as “Steubenville: The Untold Story.” It should have remained untold. I understand that the victim wasn’t speaking to the media, but there was certainly enough evidence available on the Internet for journalists to construct a different picture of what happened that night, one that didn’t portray the rapists as innocent boys wrongfully accused or imply that the victim was complicit.

There were other outlets that failed here (though some, notably Yahoo’s Dan Wetzel and the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s Rachel Dissell, got it right ). ThinkProgress points out that NBC News also discussed the boys’ “promising future,” now curtailed by being convicted of rape. The network didn’t mention that their future went off track by their own decision to commit a crime. Similarly, the Associated Press began a story by identifying the victim as a “drunken 16-year-old,” while the defendants were described as being part of “Steubenville’s celebrated high school football team.” (They, of course, had also been drinking.) USA Today also described her as “drunken.” This framing could easily have been handled differently. For one thing, back in September The Plain Dealer reported that the victim might have been drugged. This possibility was later corroborated by the victim on the witness stand. “Possibly drugged” or “unconscious” would have been better adjectives than “drunken.”

Additionally, Fox, CNN, and MSNBC ran the name of the victim in news clips, neglecting to drop the sound when one of the rapists named her in his apology. Dropping sound is an easy edit and is done by networks all the time for less weighty reasons. There is no excuse for not doing it here.

There is a lot one could say—and people are, eloquently—about the invidiousness of rape culture, the callousness of social media, and about the disparity in the treatment of athletes accused of rape and victims of those athletes.

But there is only one thing to say to the media: You know better. In 2013, after covering dozens of sexual assaults by athletes, you know better. You know better than to act as if it is a tragedy that the lives of athlete-rapists are ruined when they themselves chose to do the ruining. You know better than to insinuate that since the victim was drunk she may have deserved or wanted the assault to happen. You know better. And you should each apologize. And next time it happens—say, today, now that two athletes have been charged with sexual assault in Connecticut—you must do better.

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Jennifer Vanasco is a is a news editor at WNYC and the former editor in chief of MTV Network's LGBT news site 365gay.com. She writes about social minorities, national politics, and culture. Her award-winning newspaper column on gay and women's issues ran for 15 years.