This week, two teenage boys in Steubenville, Ohio, were convicted of raping a 16-year-old girl. The victim, Jane Doe, bravely testified in court against her attackers, Trent Mays and Ma’Lik Richmond, in the face of the stigma attached to being a victim of rape — particularly in a town where the boys were hailed as heroes for their prowess on the football field.
Despite the overwhelming amount of evidence against the rapists (thousands of text messages documented the assault, and one of the boys took revealing photos of Jane Doe while she was passed out) CNN’s coverage of the guilty verdict skewed alarmingly in favor of the accused.
As CNN anchor Candy Crowley and reporter Poppy Harlow reflected on the mood in the court room during the sentencing, they made no mention of the impact the trial and the verdict had on the 16-year-old rape victim. Instead, they sympathized with the rapists, who were good students and star football players. They lamented the impact that the verdict would have on the boys’ futures.
“I can not imagine how emotional the sentencing must have been,” said Crowley. But she wasn’t referring to the relief that Jane Doe and her family must have felt when justice was served. She was talking about the pain the rapists must be feeling. “A 16-year-old, sobbing in court, regardless of what big football players they are, they still sound like 16-yea-olds. What is the lasting effect of two young [men] being guilty in juvenile court of rape essentially?”
Again, no discussion of the lasting effect actually being raped, then having photos of the attack circulated around a community, and then having to relive it in a public court might have on a 16-year-old girl.
“It was incredibly emotional,” added Harlow, who was in the court room when the verdict was delivered. “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 believe their life fell apart.”
This sort of rhetoric perpetuates rape culture — a horrific system that blames victims for the crimes carried out against them. And it’s not only the media that’s guilty of extending the violation of Jane Doe. A tumblr post revealed the pervasive nature of the stigma against rape victims, gathering heinous tweets like those below.
A Change.org petition urging CNN to “apologize on air for sympathizing with the Steubenville rapists” circulated this week, with over 74,000 signatures by 7:30 p.m. EST on Monday.
“A culture that sympathizes with rapists and encourages them while
shaming rape victims can no longer be considered socially acceptable,
and that change must start with you. As journalists for a major network
that reaches millions of households in the United States and worldwide,
it is your responsibility. Accept it,” reads the petition.
CNN has also been called out by a number of outlets that have pointed out the unsettling and downright offensive slant that the coverage took over the weekend. For more on the issue, read some of the articles quoted below.
“There seems to be no limit for the amount sympathy some people can
muster for Mays and Richmond, and, conversely, no limit to the amount of
callousness they can muster in dismissing, discrediting, or flat-out
blaming the 16-year-old girl, the only — and we really shouldn’t have to
say this — real victim in this rape trial.” [Jezebel]
“For readers interested in learning more about how not to be labeled
as registered sex offenders, a good first step is not to rape
unconscious women, no matter how good your grades are. Regardless of the
strength of your GPA (weighted or unweighted), if you commit rape,
there is a possibility you may someday be convicted of a sex crime. This
is because of your decision to commit a sex crime instead of going for a
walk, or reading a book by Cormac McCarthy. Your ability to perform
calculus or play football is generally not taken into consideration in a
court of law. Should you prefer to be known as ‘Good student and
excellent football player Trent Mays’ rather than ‘Convicted sex
offender Trent Mays,’ try stressing the studying and tackling and giving
the sex crimes a miss altogether.” [Gawker]
“If all this upsets you, don’t use up all your rage now. The Steubenville case is hardly over. Next, the state of Ohio will convene a grand jury
to investigate further charges, and the media circus will get an
encore, if not an entirely new act. All any decent person can do is hope
for a little bit more balance.” [The Atlantic Wire]
“Whitfield wrapped the first segment of her coverage on the case by
describing it as “a heart-breaking case to watch, no matter how you look
at it.” That CNN can find so many ways to look at a rape trial is
perhaps to blame for their embarrassing and damaging coverage.” [The Huffington Post]