Meaning-making in Steubenville reporting

Photo by Keith Srakocic, via the New York Times.

Trent Mays, one of two teenage boys found guilty of rape. Photo by Keith Srakocic, via the New York Times.

Since the verdict was announced Sunday morning, discourse about the Steubenville rape case has exploded. Not just about the truly disgusting details of the case itself, particularly the behavior of the perpetrators and the support they received from their community, but also regarding the atrocious coverage from mainstream news networks such as CNN, Fox, CBS and MSNBC. (Gawker does a good wrap up.)

I don’t have the energy or time to dissect this completely, not to mention I’m typing this on my phone, but if I have the emotional capacity to do so later tonight, I will update this post. In the meantime, I’ve probably sent out roughly 100 tweets today discussing the issues, so check out my Twitter feed for now. If we’re friends on Facebook, there’s also a discussion going on there, mostly between media professionals. But it needs to be addressed, and because I’m a nerd who saves everything, I dug up an old email I sent to my staff at The Signal in 2011 that is incredibly relevant.

Hi all,

I want to draw your attention to an article that was published in the New York Times on March 8, written by James McKinley Jr. One of our copy-editors, Emma Harger, brought it to my attention and I wanted to share it with you. The article is supposed to be a news story about the gang-rape of an 11-year-old girl in Texas by a group of 18 teenagers and men. It’s a very short article, so PLEASE read it.

Not only is the writing pretty atrocious (I wasn’t aware you could watch a videoTAPE on a cellphone, or that you could record a video on a TELEphone…), but did you notice anything else about the language this writer used to describe what happened? His rhetoric is, frankly, horrifying. For those of you not familiar with rape culture and victim-blaming, this article is a perfect example of how the media can be very much responsible for creating cultures of thought around specific issues, events or topics. And with something as sensitive a topic as sexual assault and rape, especially that of a child, this is a sobering lesson in just how much damage it can do.

Some examples:
- “if the allegations are proved, how could their young men have been drawn into such an act?”
This implies that the suspects were somehow coerced into committing the crime. It removes responsibility from the suspects. It also puts the spotlight on the suspects rather than the victim — this story is absolutely about the victim, not the suspects.

- “‘It’s just destroyed our community,’ said Sheila Harrison, 48, a hospital worker who says she knows several of the defendants. ‘These boys have to live with this the rest of their lives.’”
Um. The suspects will have to live with this for the rest of their lives? What about the 11-year-old child who was raped by 18 men repeatedly? Just a hunch, but I’m willing to bet that it will impact her far more.

- “the victim had been visiting various friends there for months. They said she dressed older than her age, wearing makeup and fashions more appropriate to a woman in her 20s. She would hang out with teenage boys at a playground, some said.”
This is perhaps the best example of what NOT to do in rape articles — how the girl dressed and who she spent time with is NOT relevant to the story. This is the same as saying “It was her fault she was raped — she was asking for it.” (This is not up for debate, by the way.)

- “‘Where was her mother? What was her mother thinking?’ said Ms. Harrison, one of a handful of neighbors who would speak on the record. ‘How can you have an 11-year-old child missing down in the Quarters?’”
Not only has the article blamed the victim, but now we are blaming the mother as well. There is nothing — period — that makes anyone other than the rapist responsible for a rape. Not how the victim dressed or acted and not what the victim’s parents/friends/teachers/etc have or have not done.

And in light of all of that, it makes me uncomfortable that the writer included this bit of information:
- “Five suspects are students at Cleveland High School, including two members of the basketball team. Another is the 21-year-old son of a school board member.”
At first glance it appears that the writer is simply including information relevant to the story, because he follows the statement with an explanation of past drug use, etc. But later on in the article he quotes a woman (above) that knows some of the suspects and who is clearly more concerned about the suspects than the victim.

The New York Times has posted a letter to the editor addressing the problems with this article.

Some other responses:
The Careless Language of Sexual Violence
Media Blows It With Pathetic Gang Rape Coverage
New York Times Blames 11-year-old Rape Victim

As you can see, this is completely unacceptable and clearly very embarrassing for the New York Times. I know, from personal experience, that it’s very easy to just write something quickly and not think about what you are actually saying. I also know, from the same personal experiences, that it’s very embarrassing and humbling when someone is offended by something you wrote that was not intended to offend in the slightest. You MUST be careful about what you say, not only because it’s the responsible and ethical thing to do, but because — as you can see — certain things can contribute to a larger culture that victim-blames and slut-shames.As always, if you want to talk with me about anything or have any questions, feel free to contact me. Discussions are always welcome, but again — this is one topic that is not up for debate.

As journalists, we contribute to a larger sociological discussion, regardless of how objective we are and regardless of whether we intend to or not. By creating content and especially by disseminating content, we are perpetuating ideas and cultures surrounding issues that create a larger body of sociological law.

Language, and the way we chose to use it, is important. Use it carefully and with purpose.

If your editor asks for details about a rape victim’s clothing, behavior or state of intoxication in a rape story? Refuse. If your production editor hands you a script that uses sympathetic language when discussing the perpetrator? Refuse. You are a content creator, and your name and face are associated with that content. As such, you have the right and responsibility to ensure that whatever you are disseminating is accurate, objective and sensitive.

For more on meaning-making as it applies to sexual assault, please check out a research paper I did in 2010 under Dr. Carrie Freeman, Meaning Making with Media System Dependency Theories and Feminism.

One response to “Meaning-making in Steubenville reporting

  1. Pingback: Sexism, racism are not funny | sheena louise roetman.·

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