How Should the Media Cover Rape Cases?

Posted by Abbey Barrow

While journalists have struggled for years with ethical issues in reporting on rape cases, the recent Steubenville, Ohio case has brought new questions to light regarding how the media approaches rape coverage. Last week’s verdict found two high schoolers guilty of raping a 16-year-old girl in the small Ohio town, but the court decision wasn’t the end of discussion over the case and how is was reported.

Photo via AP

Photo via AP

The two boys, 16-year old Trent Mays and 17-year old Ma’lik Richmond were football players in Steubenville, which the BBC calls “a small and economically depressed former steel town that had immense pride in its high school football team, known as the ‘Big Red’.” Many reports on the rape involved a potential cover-up by town authorities to protect the football team. The hacker group Anonymous even staged an effort to publicize information about the story through social media and advocate for the conviction of the two boys.

Yet, some media sources were not as critical of the boys. CNN in particular has been criticized for taking a sympathetic approach to the now-convicted Mays and Richmond, using such descriptors as “star football players, very good students” with “promising futures”. In the post-trail coverage, CNN’s Candy Crowley and Poppy Harlow kept the focus on the convicted boys, asking questions about their futures, leading to a petition with over 50,000 signatures asking CNN to apologize for the focus of their coverage.

While these may all be accurate angles of covering the story, sources such as University of Miami Law School Professor Mary Anne Franks felt CNN’s coverage was imbalanced in favor of the perpetrators over the victim and raised the issues of emotion-infused media coverage. “Are [the media] there to just sentimentalize or to give us an emotional sense of what is happening for any of the individuals involved, the victims or the perpetrators, or are they there to help us make sense of what is happening?” Franks asked.

While no one expects journalists to be robots, do they have a responsibility to keep emotion out of their coverage, even in cases of rape? Are journalists required to prioritize the victim over the accused in rape cases? It’s a difficult issue, but one that may need some industry standards and ethical clarification to avoid similar debacles in the future.

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14 responses to “How Should the Media Cover Rape Cases?

  1. I know journalists aren’t perfect, but it drives me nuts when they take such an obvious stance. We must remain middle ground, give all the facts and let the viewers/ readers decide what they believe. Personally, I have no idea how the student’s grades or football abilities have anything to do with a rape case. If reporters are reporting on rape then only the facts surrounding that should be reported. All the other details just muddy the facts.

    Also, calling the two boys “good students” and “promising futures” showcases an opinion. Why should the opinion of a CNN journalist on the ability of the boys to perform in school be given when reporting on a rape case? First it’s an opinion. Second it has nothing to do with the case at hand — does the ability for the boys to get an A in chemistry correlate with their crime? Not at all.

    I remember the backlash on Twitter after this case was reported by CNN and other news sources, looking back, I wish I would have joined in. This type of reporting gives journalism a bad name.

    • Good point about making sure to stay focused on the facts of the case and the people involved. Although it’s always good to dig deep and gather compelling information about people, relevancy is a huge issue. For most major news outlets, the story wasn’t about the boys themselves, but the crime they were convicted of. I also wonder how the story being reported on television impacted it’s delivery. When reporters are looking to fill air time, they expand and tend to talk more, adding more and more details and personalized angles.

  2. The backlash from this case is apparent on every news and social media website. Poppy Harlow was reporting what had just happened in the courtroom, but continuing to focus on the emotional state of the rapists and how this would affect their lives rather than the young girl was simply uncalled for. If the boys hadn’t been star football players and were instead older men convicted of rape, would the reporters be trying to play the sympathy card?

    I think when journalists are reporting rape cases, the victim should be their first priority. This horrible crime happened to them, and the accusers made a decision to commit the crime and therefore have to live with their choices. By reporting that these young men’s lives would be changed forever, it appeared to the public (including myself) that the victim should have just stayed quiet rather than ruining their futures. Reporting something as delicate as rape is one of the most difficult things we have to face as journalists, and shouldn’t be taken lightly.

    • I agree that journalists have to be very careful about their tone in reporting rape cases. You also bring up a really good point about how the status and position of the boys contributed to how they were portrayed. Ideally, we should be able to report the facts without letting a person’s status or characteristics get in the way, but this is definitely not always the case. It’s important not to advocate sympathy or coerce the audience into certain emotions.

  3. This is a very difficult issue. Keeping your own emotions private is a very hard thing to do, especially if you have a personal connection. Though I am hesitant to say this, but I think reporters should have to keep their personal opinions and emotions to themselves. It comes with the job.
    I think CNN should have focused more on the victim. I understand that these boys are only in high school and it is good to cover them in the news as well to get their side of the story, but isn’t the victim the one who should be heard most? By focusing mainly on the boys and how their lives would be changed forever it almost made it seem like we should feel bad for them.

    • That’s a good point about maintaining objectivity in the newsroom. It’s always difficult to separate the personal from the professional opinions, and I’m not sure if pure objectivity is ever really possible. Journalists can never simply discard their emotions, nor should they probably. Yet, it’s important to remember that as writers and editors, we have a civic responsibility to our audiences to give them the facts, not how we feel about the facts.

  4. This reminds me very much of how the Bill Clinton & Monica Lewinsky issue was covered. The media here has been remarked to have been soft on Clinton, highlighting the fact that he is human and makes mistakes, but was also a president with a high approval rating. Not to mention his approval rating went up after the case. Many people considered him a good president despite his marriage issues.

    With cases like these if I was on the victim end I wouldn’t want the focus to be on me. Rape/affairs are way to personal and the media realizes this. In reality, news stories cover these issues the only way respectable, by focusing on the “bad guy.” How the “bad guy” actions are interpreted in relation to their situation is up to the reader. Saying they are star football players with promising futures may prime the public to think media is pulling the sympathy card, but journalists report the facts and if those are the facts (as in back up these statements with GPA, awards, local residents opinions, etc) you’d be skewing them into something worse then they are when leaving that type of information out. How readers decide to feel after reading the facts is up to them. They may have had promising futures, but they also raped someone. How does that add up to you overall?

    • That’s a really good comparison to the Clinton scandal, and I think the idea of the media “going soft” on certain figures is a relevant one throughout the history of journalism. You also bring up the victim’s wishes, which is another huge component of how we cover rape cases. Journalists covering the Steubenville case had an ethical responsibility to consult the victim’s wishes and respect her rights, especially since she is a minor.

  5. I think it’s really interesting that we are constantly taught at Drake to always be unbiased when reporting something, but we see bias all of the time in the real world. It’s probably true that if these boys were not high school football stars they would have been treated differently. What if these boys were in high school, but weren’t on any teams? Would they have been treated differently then? My guess is probably. Journalists covering this story should have just presented the facts. That is, after all, our job. The public can then take that information and form their own opinions about the case. Journalists are of course allowed to have their own opinions about a case like this, but those opinions have to stay out of their professional lives.

    I also agree with some of the other comments that the news coverage should have been about the victim. Yes, you always have to get both sides of the story, but only focusing on the boys made it seem like they were somehow the victims. It made the public want to sympathize with them instead of the actual victim.

    • You make a really good point about the role of football in this whole saga. So much of the coverage I read focused on the boys being football players and just how much football means to this town. Yet, if they were golfers or members of a club, that description would probably not be used as often. It brings up an interesting questions of the epithets journalists use and how they can sometimes take on a life of their own as they become proliferated through the media. Thus, journalists and editors both have to be thoughtful about the descriptors they use and what those terms imply.

  6. I think the biggest shock of this case was that a female reporter followed this story, and was so heavily sympathetic to the young men who were found guilty. In my JMC 66 class we discussed that sometimes as journalist following long term stories like this one that have been on going since August. We sometimes assume our audience has been following the story as well, and when we simply pick up where the story left of it can be seen as a bias and controversial report. The details of the victim had already been reported so now months the verdict has become the highlight of the story. I believe there might have been less backlash if CNN had refreshed the audience on previous reports done on the story.

    But also in rape cases, victim blaming is for some reason hard for our culture to escape. Which leads me to wonder is it so much Poppy Harlow’s fault? She simply fed a dark stereotype and culture issue that we already struggle with.

    • Really good point about the timing of this case. Journalists also have a responsibility to provide their audiences with enough context to fully understand the story. Especially in this case, some of the misunderstanding may have come from the lack of information provided to the audience. CNN then focused on some personal details to find new angles on the story after months of coverage. Yet, once the story blew up with the trail verdict, everything came increasingly to the spotlight.

  7. In my opinion, journalists have a responsibility to report on news in an unbiased manner. I think the role of a reporters is to investigate newsworthy events and then provide its audience with information to formulate their own opinions.

    I liked that the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal was used as a reference but I don’t remember new coverage of this story very well. I do, however, recall the coverage from last year with George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin. In many instances the coverage was biased to favor Zimmerman. We discussed this frequently in J66 when I took the class last year. I think journalists failure to keep their emotions out of reporting is a major reason that J66 is even able to exist as a course at Drake. The industry keeps providing examples of what not to do. Let’s hope that Drake J-School students are good at learning from other people’s mistakes.

    • I also really like your comparison to the Trayvon Martin case because I think it’s another case that we can learn from as journalists. You’re right in that when stories have powerful emotional components, it can be easy to ignore a journalist’s responsibility to the audience and the truth. In the end, journalism really is about giving people necessary information, not about injecting emotional appeals or personal opinions.

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