EDITORIAL: Steubenville rape coverage perpetuates wrong narratives

Trent Mays, 17, and 16-year-old Ma'lik Richmond were found delinquent on rape and other charges after their trial in juvenile court in Steubenville, Ohio on Sunday, March 17, 2013 .Mays and Richmond were accused of raping a 16-year-old West Virginia girl in August, 2012. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic, Pool)
Trent Mays, 17, and 16-year-old Ma’lik Richmond were found delinquent on rape and other charges after their trial in juvenile court in Steubenville, Ohio on Sunday, March 17, 2013 .Mays and Richmond were accused of raping a 16-year-old West Virginia girl in August, 2012. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic, Pool)

The Steubenville, Ohio, rape trial involving a group of teenagers, including two boys who were found guilty Sunday, was a tragedy and painful experience for all involved.

The victim, a 16-year-old girl, faced horror beyond her control and will likely struggle to mentally, emotionally and physically get past the experience for years to come. The defendants in this case committed a crime that they will probably regret for the rest of their lives. However, there is a key difference: the defendants had a choice. Theirs is not the greater tragedy in this case, and to imply or suggest that it is would be utter foolishness.

But CNN correspondent Poppy Harlow, in live coverage of the verdict, noted the impact of the guilty verdict for the defendants long before mentioning the victim.

“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,” Harlow said in the broadcast.

The coverage, which has now gone viral online, continued to discuss the boys’ future and the impact alcohol had on the situation, almost implying the latter as an excuse for their actions.

Paul Callan, a CNN legal contributor, then discussed the “lasting impact” this case will have on the defendants.

“But in terms of what happens now, yes, the most severe thing with these young men is being labeled as registered sex offenders,” Callan said. “That will haunt them for the rest of their lives.”

CNN neglected to mention the boys’ victim until nearly the end of the broadcast, only to say she wasn’t testifying.

Of course this verdict will make these boys’ lives much more difficult, but this difficulty, which they accepted in choosing to so violate another human being, is minuscule compared to the lifelong effects that will stay with the person they raped.

Even if CNN did not mean any harm, this reporting not only demonstrates bad journalism but reveals how ignorantly we talk about rape in our society. Referring to the defendants repeatedly as “star” football players with “promising” futures glorifies them after being convicted of a horrific act as children who didn’t know better and simply made a mistake.

Furthermore, the reporting advances the disturbing trend of blaming the victim. CNN and its reporters may not be directly blaming the victim, but by burying the victim in the story, they are almost empathizing with the boys and are certainly not displaying any awareness or consideration of the high school student whom they raped and of the ensuing trauma of such an act.

Journalists should be held to a higher standard and should not be buying into popular misconceptions about rape. The Tribune editorial board in January discussed a situation at the University of Notre Dame that was handled in a similarly poor way, a situation in which a Notre Dame football player was accused of sexually assaulting a student at St. Mary’s College who committed suicide a few days later. In that instance, Notre Dame showed far more concern about the stability and reputation of its football program than the victim and her grieving family. This phenomenon is of course not just confined to the world of sports, but its manifestation in this context and how it is presented in the media cannot go unnoticed and points to a dire problem in our culture.

By showing very little urgency or care about the victim’s well-being, CNN, a usually trusted, mainstream news source, has caused societal damage, advancing misconceptions about rape and sexual assault, trivializing them and normalizing them. Outrage has ensued, as evidenced by a Change.org petition asking the network to apologize that already has more than 250,000 signatures.

As student journalists, we are prepared to learn from this example and to report with greater sensitivity when similar tragedies occur. When atrocities like this occur in the future, we hope to be more mindful of the messages we are sending to the public with our reporting and to always remember which realities are the harshest.

In our experiences at Marquette, we have seen efforts to promote a proper understanding of these issues. Sexual Violence Awareness Week every September and other events on campus show a dedication by our administration to develop the right mindset on these issues – which will hopefully avoid any lack of judgement like CNN showed this week.

In stories like this, the focus should be the crime committed, the facts presented and the victim. CNN should admit its mistake – not just to rectify a journalistic error, but to try to right detrimental views on the topic that it perpetuated in its coverage.