A Few Thoughts on the Media’s Coverage of Steubenville

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Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a freelance journalist and blogger. He considers Bob Dylan and Walter Sobchak to be the two great Jewish thinkers of our time; he thinks Kafka was half-right when he said there was hope, "but not for us"; and he can be reached through the twitter via @eliasisquith or via email. The opinions he expresses on the blog and throughout the interwebs are exclusively his own.

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26 Responses

  1. Avatar Tod Kelly
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    says:

    I confess: I saw the CNN story after having read about it and did not see the “yay rapists!” message everyone else is seeing. Since I seem to the only one that is missing it, I’ll accept that it’s most likely my own failing.

    That being said, I think the reaction to the story does highlight an interesting issue for the media in rape cases:

    For a few decades, it’s been considered a victory for women’s rights groups that most major news organizations now have rules where they do not name the victim, or even discuss her (except when the describing of the crime(s) committed). But I have seen a reversal on that stance with much of what I have read in blogs that covered this story. The fact that the news has focused on the accused and not on the victim now seems to be taken as the same slight that focusing on the victim and ignoring the accused used to be taken for twenty years ago.

    My experience is that news follows public opinion on these matters, even if they are a few steps behind. If the internet world is successful in reversing this news-policy trend, I wonder if those now wanting more focus on the victim and less on the convicted will regret their pushing for that to happen.Report

    • Avatar Elias Isquith in reply to Tod Kelly
      Ignored
      says:

      It’s a thorny issue. I don’t think CNN went wrong in focusing on the young men or should have bothered the young woman more. But I think they clearly tripped themselves up with the amount of editorial sympathy for the rapists that much—not all, much—of their coverage showed.Report

      • Avatar Tod Kelly in reply to Elias Isquith
        Ignored
        says:

        I think that’s that thing, that I didn’t just see the sympathy for the boys. Here’s what I saw:

        I saw video of the boys finally admitting their guilt after sentencing, a reading of a letter from the victims mother saying the victim will not let the crime against her define who she is, footage of various government officials condemning the boys and their crimes, and a note that the State is gearing up to pursue others they believe were involved on the social media front. I’m not seeing how any of that if pro-rape, anti-women or out of bounds. In fact, I think I’d be railing against CNN if they refused to show any of that.

        I think I first read about this story (the CNN story, not the Stuebenville story) on a Balloon Juice blog post where the writer insinuated that the reporter said it should have been OK because they were football players. But when I watched the video the writer linked to, I found myself wondering if the blogger had taken the time to watch it – because there was no such thing uttered by anyone.Report

    • Avatar Ethan Gach in reply to Tod Kelly
      Ignored
      says:

      “The fact that the news has focused on the accused and not on the victim now seems to be taken as the same slight that focusing on the victim and ignoring the accused used to be taken for twenty years ago.”

      At least in the case of CNN, it was not the emphasis that was the slight, but its presentation.

      I saw the clip when they broke during a commecial between segments of Zakaria’s GPS. At the time I remember being vicerally repusled, not only because I thought CNN was distorting the picture of events by presenting imagering of the verdict, then cutting back to Crawley talking about bright futures, and then back to one of the criminals sobbing–but because I felt sorry for the accused after this exchange played out.

      It was similar to Zero Dark Thirty, and one of the things that repulsed me about that movie, which is that I felt sorry for and unrepulsed by the main character at the movie’s end as she sat there crying.

      As to the general thorny-ness though, I don’t have a problem finding the fact that the girl was raped as tragic as the fact that someone else, in this case young boys, could commit that act. And recognizing the tragedy through the emotional outburts of the criminals doesn’t have to lead to sympathy or compassion for them.

      Unfortunately, like Zero Dark Thirty, I don’t know how many people will view it as complexly–and not just be led to feel sorry for *what happened to the boys* rather than the fact that they could and did do such a heinous thing in the first place.Report

      • Avatar Ethan Gach in reply to Ethan Gach
        Ignored
        says:

        *convicted.Report

      • Avatar Tod Kelly in reply to Ethan Gach
        Ignored
        says:

        See my reply to Elias above as to the content, but moving past that…

        You know what I think of when I think of a cable TV news network that not only reports on what happened, but takes the time to have the in-the-field reporters and news anchors self-affirm to one another over an over how awful/terrible/evil/etc. the people they’re reporting about are?

        I think of Fox.Report

        • Avatar Ethan Gach in reply to Tod Kelly
          Ignored
          says:

          “You know what I think of when I think of a cable TV news network that not only reports on what happened, but takes the time to have the in-the-field reporters and news anchors self-affirm to one another over an over how awful/terrible/evil/etc. the people they’re reporting about are?”

          No one did that in this case though, correct? And no one is saying anyone should have?

          (Not least of all because “people” are hazy relations of a number of unclear concepts to which descriptors like terrible/evil are only ever dubioiusly applied)Report

          • Avatar Tod Kelly in reply to Ethan Gach
            Ignored
            says:

            No, but I have the sense CNN is being criticized for *not* doing that.

            The moment that seems to be getting people fired up, to my observation, is CNN showing one of the boys – after sentencing – actually confessing to the crime he’d plead non-guilty to, breaking down, showing regret and begging the family of the girl he’d raped for forgiveness. My understanding for the blogs I’ve read is that EVEN THOUGH HE JUST CONFESSED TO A CRIME HE’D PLEAD NOT GUILTY TO ON CAMERA, it made him look human and so CNN should have refused to show it and just called him a monster and been done with it.

            Am I reading the tea leaves wrong?Report

            • Avatar NoPublic in reply to Tod Kelly
              Ignored
              says:

              Am I reading the tea leaves wrong?

              No, but you might have been listening wrong.
              The one kid I saw express regret ended up apologizing for the video, but not for the rape.
              Then the CNN talking head said how moving that was and how hard it must have been for him. And didn’t mention the family of the girl at all.Report

    • Avatar Tod Kelly in reply to Tod Kelly
      Ignored
      says:

      That being said, the Onion bit is hands down the best video they’ve done in a long, long time. Utterly brilliant.Report

      • Avatar Dan Miller in reply to Tod Kelly
        Ignored
        says:

        I was stunned to find out that the Onion video is over two years old, not a response to this case at all. They are amazing.Report

        • Avatar Bob2 in reply to Dan Miller
          Ignored
          says:

          Having written satirical news in college, it’s less amazing than you’d think. Just think up the most ridiculous extreme position you can to the furthest point and eventually it will happen irl. If I were to guess, this Onion piece probably was based on the numerous other rapes that have happened in college sports, or maybe Ben Roethlisberger or Duke Lacross or…you get the point.Report

  2. Avatar Will Truman
    Ignored
    says:

    My hometown paper is famous for its sympathetic portrayal of death row inmates. They interview them, interview their families. A word or two with the victims, but the focus is always on the guy who is about to die.

    It’s easy to chalk that up to anti-death penalty advocacy. I think that’s a part of it. But I think it’s because the guy who is about to die is more interesting than the woman whom he killed fifteen years ago. And it makes for a more interesting story to have sympathy for the devil, so to speak.

    I wonder to what extent that’s what’s going on here. That the girl was raped is “old news” but the guys’ lives being derailed just happened. The problems with this attitude are manifest, of course. The guys had sex with a woman who couldn’t consent. The girl just got really drunk. These are not equivalents.Report

    • Avatar NewDealer in reply to Will Truman
      Ignored
      says:

      Interestingly I think I read about this in a study last week. Most Americans still support Capital Punishment but opponents are feeling less marginalized and opposition is on the rise. It is no longer a ten-foot pole issue for politicians to be against the death penalty. The study thinks that media focus on death row inmates and wrongful conviction stories is what made opposition to the death penality increase over when the focus was on cost and constitutionality.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman in reply to NewDealer
        Ignored
        says:

        I attribute it primarily to coverage of DNA exculpations and the like. This might have played a role, though. When I was growing up, the cases spotlighted by opponents of capital punishment were often among the least sympathetic. By doing it for every inmate, you can see that a lot of them are just people who are sad losers in life in addition to being murderers.Report

  3. Avatar Ethan Gach
    Ignored
    says:

    Great post Elias. Don’t think it lost anything at all by incubating for a day or two.Report

  4. Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist
    Ignored
    says:

    It should have been, “Young Men in Steubenville rape case found guilty. In other news…”Report

  5. Avatar NewDealer
    Ignored
    says:

    I think you bring about a very good point with advertisement, demographics, and not challenging expectations.

    The whole 24/7 Cable News thing is still very weird to me, The number of people who watch cable news on a regular basis are an exceedingly small slice of the American population. Glenn Beck in his heyday was only watched by a million or two million people. Overall Fox, MSNBC, and CNN are watched by a smaller and largely older segment of the population. Yet these organizations have far more power than their numbers would expect or should allow. Perhaps those news junkies command a higher purchasing power and/or are more likely to vote. I don’t know.*

    But I agree with you. CNN’s audience is older and comes from a different time. The way they explained those views is probably how the audience feels.

    *Perhaps cable news can sink to irrelevance once we start remembering how few people watch it constantly and those that do are not Joe and Jane AmericanReport

  6. Avatar Kazzy
    Ignored
    says:

    “Basically what I think happened is that the people who run these shows are overworked. They get sloppy. And lazy.”

    An honest question… would your criticism/assessment have been so sympathetic to the news agency if it was Fox News getting raked over the coals and not CNN?Report

    • Avatar Elias Isquith in reply to Kazzy
      Ignored
      says:

      Probably not 1:1 but I also think I’d be generally sympathetic because I know people who work in media and I know a lot of the worst parts of mass entertainment are the result of structural influences more than individual failures.Report

  7. Avatar LWA
    Ignored
    says:

    I compare this to the coverage of the infamous New York “Wilding”.

    I can’t help but think that the difference in class status between the accused rapists then and now accounts for most of the difference. The perps in this case were very much part of the same culture as the media shot callers, whereas the Wilding accused were The Other.Report

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