Media Hall of Shame: Media Reinforces Offensive Rape Narratives in Steubenville Coverage

Offenders: Media outlets CNN, Fox News and MSNBC

The Offense: Coverage of the verdict in the Steubenville rape case by CNN, which lamented the lost future potential of the rapists. Fox News, MSNBC, and CNN fail to redact the name of the victim in footage from the defendant’s courtroom apology.

NOW’s Analysis: CNN’s coverage of the verdict in the Steubenville, Ohio case was morally reprehensible. While it may be difficult to fill a 24/7 news-cycle, the answer is not to mourn the defendants’ lost futures. The victim has a future, too, one irrevocably altered by the actions of the defendants and those who helped cover up their crimes.

CNN, in their coverage, repeatedly described the victim as “drunk” or “drunkenly” even though “unconscious” “passed out” or “blacked out” would be more accurate. The defendants were described as “star football players” and “good students,” as if that has any meaningful bearing on the case. Why is CNN pushing this trope? This kind of reporting helps feed the common cultural narrative that only bad men — a stranger, jumping out from the bushes — can be a rapist. Statistically we know this is false. Most victims know their attackers.

Yes, one can argue that both boys had the chance at a bright future. But they also made the choice to take advantage of an unconscious girl. They chose to photograph and videotape their exploits. Furthermore, they chose — with great bravado — to disseminate proof of their exploits using social media.

While the coverage is problematic, it is even more so in a culture that devalues women and regularly downplays the crime of rape, particularly sexual assaults committed by talented athletes. Our society laments the loss of the football careers these young men may have had, yet fails to seriously consider the affect this crime could have on the victim.

In covering the verdict, CNN could have talked about how more than half of all rapes are never reported. Is it any wonder with coverage like this? Rape has an arrest rate of 25 percent. Only six percent of rapists will ever spend a day in jail. In the United States there is a backlog in testing rape kits; in 2009, the city of Los Angeles alone had 12,500 untested rape kits. According to the group End the Backlog: “This means that a rape victim has a one in five chance of seeing her perpetrator brought to justice.”

A guilty verdict requiring jail time is shocking because it is so rare. Why isn’t that the story?

Compounding CNN’s coverage was the failure of Fox News, MSNBC and (again) CNN to properly redact the name of the victim in footage from the defendant’s courtroom apology. This is particularly egregious from Fox News, which did not use either defendants name in coverage of the case. It should be noted that, by Monday, NBC/MSNBC was using an edited version of Trent Mays’ courtroom apology when covering the case.

NOW is horrified at the callous disregard shown by these networks toward a victim of sexual violence. This trial is not a game show or an episode of reality TV; the case is real, involving a real victim and should be treated with a greater sense of responsibility.

If we can learn one thing from CNN’s insistence that the Steubenville defendants are “good boys”, it’s that even “good boys” can be rapists. It’s time the media learn their lesson.

Take action: Tell CNN to apologize on the air. Demand that CNN create guidelines for its anchors, reporters and producers on how to handle cases of sexual violence and to make these guidelines available to the general public.

Tweet your dissatisfaction to these networks: @CNN, @FoxNews and @msnbc. Don’t forget to use the hashtags #Steubenville and #SupportJaneDoe.

CNN is a subsidiary of Turner Broadcasting System; their contact information can be found here.

Caitlin Gullickson, NOW Communications Assistant, March 20, 2013

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