A Few Thoughts on the Media’s Coverage of Steubenville

Among many others, I have an unfortunate habit of writing posts during the evenings that I ultimately don’t finish. By the time I’ve got a moment to return to the piece, it’s either old news or my passion’s been zapped by seeing my few points raised by others, usually better, and almost always in front of a larger audience.

That’s what happened to this post. It was originally going to be about the media’s coverage of the Steubenville rape trial (too hideous for me to recount, so for the uninformed). I began it Sunday afternoon and here it is, two days later, and most anything worth saying’s been already said.

And, I gotta say, thank God for that.

CNN’s coverage was far from the only example of failure — but it was the most egregious of all. So, again, thank God for the online petition that blossomed into life today. As of this writing, it’s already notched more than 85,000 signatures. It deserves thousands upon thousands more.

ThinkProgress has a good roundup of other sources of media failure. What’s striking is the variety of ways the big news conglomerates found to approach the story with a treacly sentimentality. Sexism is obviously at play here. But I don’t think that can explain why all of these big newsers fucked up and fucked up so similarly.

My best theory is similar to a point HuffPo’s Kia Makarechi made in his response to CNN:

The slant of the day’s coverage was revealing…CNN appears to have bet on the emotions of those it could show on camera — for obvious reasons, the victim’s identity has been protected, and the victim’s family was not shown weeping in court. Networks know that people crying make for great TV.

Basically what I think happened is that the people who run these shows are overworked. They get sloppy. And lazy. If we consider that the victim’s anonymity made it exceedingly difficult to run he-said/she-said coverage, it’s kind of a no-brainer that we’d end up with reports that have much more in common with one of those unbearably maudlin SportsCenter “stories” about athletes triumphing in the face of adversity than they do with actual news.

The weeping rapists were right there. TV gold. And the girl? She didn’t even give us a single little tear! No Casey Anthony, her.

It’s also worth keeping in mind that the ultimate point of TV news is not to inform but to secure an audience that it can then sell to advertisers. That has a lot of consequences in practice, but one of the more obvious results is that TV news overwhelmingly caters to its target audience’s prejudices. And I don’t mean this solely in the Fox News vs. MSNBC way, the partisan politics way.

I mean it in the way that a producer at CNN or the like is not going to challenge any of her audience’s firmly held beliefs — especially when it comes to those beliefs that aren’t really PC anymore but are nevertheless widespread. Like the idea that rape is as often as not the victim’s fault. Or, more abstractly, the idea that we should all just get along.

The “let’s just get along” stance permeates American politics and is the foundation of the anti-democratic strain that slithers insidiously through our society. We’re all used to it by now, except we usually hear it in one form or another in the context of an argument over race. It’s part and parcel of the complaints that charges of racism or the like are polarizing and uncouth. It’s manifested in the position that accusing someone of racism is nearly as bad as being racist.

What’s happening here is very similar. The sense you get if you read or watch most mainstream coverage of Steubenville? Being accused of rape is nearly as awful as being raped. Maybe even worse — because the girl was drunk and at an all-night party and blah, blah, blah. The charge is worse than the crime.

So consider this brilliant Onion video a palliative for all that. And don’t forget to sign the petition if you haven’t already.

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26 thoughts on “A Few Thoughts on the Media’s Coverage of Steubenville

  1. 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.

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    • 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.

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      • 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.

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    • “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.

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      • 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.

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        • “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)

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          • 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?

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            • 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.

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        • 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.

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  2. 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.

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    • 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.

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      • 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.

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  3. 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 American

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  4. “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?

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    • 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.

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  5. 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.

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