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The Steubenville Rape Trial: How CNN Got It So Wrong

CNN’s coverage
of the Steubenville rape trial is drawing the ire of viewers and non-viewers alike. The report on the conviction of Trent Mays, 17, and Ma’lik Richmond, 16, for the rape of a 16-year-old girl last August was sympathetic to the plight of the rapists, wondering what was to become of their once “promising” futures.

‘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 believed their lives fell apart…’, said correspondent Poppy Harlow, outside of the courthouse.

Now, more than 200,000 people are demanding an apology via a petition:

‘To have three of your personalities blatantly portray the rapists as the victims in this situation while not so much as acknowledging the actual rape victim and what she has had to put up with since — death threats and the hostility of that entire football-crazed town — is nothing short of disgusting,’ the letter reads.

Petition organiser Gabriel Garcia is also asking people to support a second petition, calling for the firing of Steubenville coach Mr. Saccoccia for helping to cover up the crimes.

CNN hasn’t apologised and probably won’t. From a purely legal and journalistic standpoint, the anonymity of Jane Doe means not much can be said about her life, and that is the defense that has cropped up around the Internet. Citing legal barriers is not an excuse for the coverage last week.

Egregious though it was, CNN’s choice to focus on the impact the guilty verdict would have on Mays and Richmond wasn’t surprising or unique. The media has yet to figure out how to adequately cover rape, especially when the parties involved don’t fit the sexual assault narrative sold to so many young women, which should by now be understood as a statistical myth.

The rapists were young, well-liked, football stars in a small town, not leery, middle-aged predators trolling the subways of a big city. Jane Doe knew them well enough to trust them and was at a party in what she believed to be safe company. She was surrounded by other teens in someone’s home, not walking alone down a dark alley. Society scrambles to find ways to blame victims for their attacks or explain away rape.

By narrowing in on their damaged reputations and tainted job prospects, the implication is that Mays and Richmond are young people who made a mistake. But even on the (very) off chance these boys didn’t realise what they were doing was wrong, it was and they deserve the sentence handed to them.

That is how the law works.

When you have sex with someone without his or her consent, it’s rape, plain and simple. That is what happened in Steubenville, Ohio and debates to the contrary are nonsense. Going to a party is not consent. Being drunk is not consent. Accepting help is not consent. Being unconscious is not consent. Absolutely nothing Jane Doe did implies she was consenting to digital penetration or having pictures and video of herself sent around to her peers.

Poppy Harlow, Candy Crowley and Paul Callan should have been relieved. What might’ve happened had these boys not been found guilty, and had gone off to college or into the workforce – football or otherwise – without having faced the consequences of their actions? It has been pointed out that these teens were drinking, seemingly without supervision and well under the legal drinking age. Remove those theoretical barriers in the “real” world of adulthood, and young men who’ve learnt they can get away with rape and assault will go on to do it again – or much worse. There is a startlingly high number of rape and domestic violence cases against athletes – football players in particular.

As the Steubenville case illustrates, justice is not nearly as newsworthy as a fall from grace. Rather than commenting on what this outcome promises for other rape survivors who contemplate reporting their attacks, CNN chose to spotlight what the rapists lost. Which prompts another question: had these boys been high school dropouts rather than future football stars, would the outcome have been as difficult to watch? How much did being young, well-known, athletes influence their sentence?

This slant has several serious ramifications, one being that it is fodder for the kind of slut-shaming that was found all over social media on 17 March.

The blog ‘Public Shaming’ attempts to call out sexism, racism, homophobia and privilege on the Internet, and there was plenty of material to be found on Twitter the morning the verdict was announced. In the span of a few hours, Jane Doe became the villain in the media and online. By daring to report the crime, she ruined lives and destroyed futures. By drinking while female, she is less deserving of sympathy or justice, and her recollection of events shouldn’t be believed. So now, people who choose to report have to worry about the reputations of their rapists as well as the possible tarnishing of their own.

Many have asked ‘what about the victim? How was her life ruined?’ I don’t believe this is the best route to take either. To say Jane Doe’s life is ruined does a disservice to survivors of rape and sexual assault. It implies that there is no coming back from what has happened to them. We can be concerned about the serious and lasting psychological and physical trauma for rape survivors without sentencing them to a lifetime of pity and victimhood. Already Jane Doe has demonstrated her strength, first by taking on her attackers in a justice system with a pitiful track record of convicting rapists, then again by enduring vile character assassination (even before several outlets published her name).

The Steubenville verdict was a victory and to present it any other way is irresponsible.

4 thoughts on “The Steubenville Rape Trial: How CNN Got It So Wrong

  1. Pingback: editor of sexist magazine says sexist thing – the issue of the ‘male gaze’ | lip magazine

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