Commentary: Sympathetic coverage of Steubenville teen rapists by media sparks outrage
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It's no secret that in news coverage, a human interest angle can be powerful. But as media giant CNN learned Monday, if the only humans available to put on television are convicted rapists, maybe don't go that route.
A firestorm of protest began shortly after CNN correspondent Poppy Harlow broke into Sunday's "State of the Union" program to report that two Steubenville, Ohio, high school football players had been found delinquent in the rape of a 16-year-old girl -- a finding comparable to a guilty verdict -- in a juvenile court bench trial.
The teens had been accused of raping the girl who was so incapacitated by alcohol at a series of parties last August that she was incapable of granting consent. In addition, one of them posted a nude photo of the girl on social media.
Cameras filming the trial -- something not allowed in Pennsylvania -- showed Trent Mays, 17, and Ma'lik Richmond, 16, sobbing after the verdict was read by visiting Judge Thomas Lipps.
CNN anchor Candy Crowley told Ms. Harlow, "I cannot imagine, having just watched this on the feed coming in. How emotional that must have been, sitting in the courtroom."
Ms. Harlow, who has been covering the trial in the city of 18,000 just over the West Virginia border, replied, "It was incredibly emotional -- incredibly difficult, even for an outsider like me to watch what happened as these two young men that had such promising futures, star football players, very good students, literally watched as they believe their life fell apart."
By way of introducing CNN legal contributor Paul Callan to describe what might happen after they had served their sentences, Ms. Crowley began "You know, Paul, a 16-year-old now just sobbing in court, regardless of what big football players they are, still sound like 16-year-olds. The other one, 17. A 16-year-old victim."
"Well, you know, Candy," Mr. Callan said, "We've seen here a courtroom drenched in tears and tragedy and, you know, Poppy's description, I think, you know, sums it all up. But across America scenes like this happen all the time."
Almost immediately, the hash tag "#rapeapologist was started on Twitter, and a petition demanding CNN apologize to the rape victim and her family, repeatedly, appeared on www.change.org.
It had almost 45,000 signatures as of mid-afternoon Monday, with a posted goal of 100,000.
"Admit that your coverage was extremely off base and tell us why it was off base," the petition read in part.
A typical response on Twitter "@PoppyHarlowCNN, those boys destroyed their own lives when they COMMITTED A VIOLENT CRIME CALLED RAPE."
The Poynter Institute quoted Lauren Wolfe, director of the Women's Media Center "Women Under Siege" project:
"What I'm so furious about, after the act perpetrated on this young woman, is our media's take. Mainstream media, of course, reflects society -- so in this case, they reflect rape culture. But shouldn't we expect more from the media? Aren't there such things as news judgment and context and analysis?"
Victims of sex crimes are not named by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and most media outlets follow that policy. While the policy was crafted to protect victims from the social stigma that may come from involvement in sex crimes, it can create an imbalance. If there is just one side of the story to tell, there is the danger of aggrandizing that one side.
Although the Steubenville victim's mother eventually made a statement in court, decrying the men's lack of human compassion, the victim was not made accessible to members of the media. So the general picture painted in the media was one of sadness, of families struggling with the shame of the crime and the long-term implications.
Televising trials has turned the more sensational cases into full-blown media events. The fact that the Steubenville football players and their friends turned to social media to, in effect, brag about the rape of a drunk and unresponsive girl merely added to the circus.
But the Internet is forever, something underscored by crime blogger Alexandria Goddard.
A former resident of Steubenville with a particular interest in the case, she was taking screen shots from the Web of those posts -- posts that were later deleted.
She also claimed on her site, www.prinniefied.com, to have been in email contact with the victim, whom she named, since shortly after the event occurred.
"What normal person would even consider that posting the brutal rape of a young girl is something that should be shared with their peers?" Ms. Goddard wrote late last year.
Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine has suggested a grand jury might be convened next month to determine if further charges are forthcoming in the case. At the same time, his recent statement also was a plea for the victim, for her privacy, and for that of anyone facing a similar situation.
"This has been particularly hard for the victim and her family. But it is even more of a tragedy when that victim is continually re-victimized in the social media."
First Published March 19, 2013 12:00 am