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.
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.