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Coverage of Steubenville rape trial treats attackers as victims

When media coverage goes wrong: a victim of crime is ignored as athletes convicted of a heinous crime are written about with sympathy and pity.

Paul Kane

As a student of media, I am quite critical of how issues and stories are presented. I'm always pointing out the good and the bad of our media; mostly because it has an incredibly important impact on, and power over, our society. How stories and issues are presented to viewers influences opinions on issues, which in turn affects choices people make. These effects are explained in the theoretical models called Framing and Agenda Setting.

Yesterday, CNN aired a story on the Stubenville, Ohio rape trial, where two football stars were found guilty of raping a 16-year-old girl. In the piece, correspondent Poppy Harlow wrote:

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 believed their lives fell apart...when that sentence came down, [Ma'lik] collapsed in the arms of his attorney...He said to him, 'My life is over. No one is going to want me now.' Very serious crime here, both found guilty of raping the sixteen-year-old girl at a series of parties back in August.

Here, CNN framed the rapists as GOOD BOYS, star football players who were just in a bad situation, trying to evoke sympathy in the viewers. The piece continues with comments from a legal expert, again creating positive emotions toward the boys because they will have to register as sex offenders:

That label is now placed on them by Ohio law...That will haunt them for the rest of their lives. Employers, when looking up their background, will see that they're registered sex offenders. When they move into a new neighborhood and somebody goes on the Internet, where these things are posted, neighbors will know that they are registered sex offenders.

I am so offended by this, in nearly every way I possibly could be; as a woman, as a mother, as a human. It is hard for me to understand how our media (and possibly even our society as a whole) can take the side of individuals who commit an awful and painful crime, without any regard for the victim. The testimony from the victim is utterly brutal to read, and the detailed reports of this crime are sickening -- the total disregard for humanity by these boys is beyond the pale. These boys videotaped the rape. They posted it online. They bragged on Twitter.

Are these the actions of honorable kids? Do good students treat classmates with such predatory disregard? Do star football players with promising futures humiliate their prey so publicly and thoroughly? But that's the shocking angle CNN used to frame these boys. That is how, not just the author, but the news behemoth decided to cover this story. An editorial decision was made to focus on the "stars" of the trial - the boys - instead of the victim.

In that town, the boys were football heroes. Did they think that status would enable them to could get away with raping someone because our society places a higher value on athletes? As a writer for Gawker noted,

It's perfectly understandable, when reporting on a rape trial, to discuss the length and severity of the sentence; it is less understandable to discuss the end of two convicted rapists' future athletic and academic careers as if it were somehow divorced from the laws of cause and effect.

Our society has a problem with worshiping the wrong people - we look towards the "popular kids," the athletes, the stars in our world as those who are worthy of attention. We view them as untouchable, and in turn they often learn to view themselves as being immune to the consequences of their actions. These boys are a perfect example of this phenomena: how our media will frame its narrative to empathize with those who have broken the law. Anyone who knows the girl personally couldn't imagine such a possibility. And many who know the convicted boys have to be ashamed of their cruel actions.

Shifting the focus where it belongs is just what was attempted after last year's Aurora, CO shooting. Peter Burns and Jordan Ghawi, friend and brother (respectively) of victim Jessica, made it their mission to place the attention back on the victims of the shooting rather than the murderer, which news outlets haven't historically done. Burns said:

We focused 100 percent on not only Jessica, but all of the victims. We talked about it, and we realized that whenever we looked at incidents like this, we remembered the shooters, but not the victims. In Columbine, we know the shooters, but we don't know the victims ... By not giving them attention, why go do it? ... A lot of people want to be a star and decide this is how they could be a star. But the star should've been Jessica or any of these other people. Not the coward who did this ... It goes to show how jaded people get. Everyone's out to get scoops, but there's a human story going on here.

And the human story in Stubenville is that of the girl; the victim. But CNN decided to focus on the boys, framing their dashed prospects as the true loss.

Furthermore, several articles online are reporting that other females in Stubenville were enraged by the verdict, threatening and calling out the victim on Twitter. One website features screenshots from various tweets, blaming the victim for what happened that evening. Social media provides the perfect environment for that 21st century pasttime, the immediate and unwarranted cyberspace witch hunt, allowing people to speak their minds about this case without any repercussions. To me, these tweets represent a complete disregard for compassion and sympathy that periodically surfaces in our society.

The two boys raped a girl who was unconscious and unwilling. There is no justification for this, ever. Yes, they will have the crime on their record and will be labeled as sex offenders for their entire life. But the fact that they received minimal sentencing should be the bright spot of their story, not the media painting puppy-dog eyes on the face of their offense.

Alexandria Goddard, native of Stubenville and author of the website Prinniefied, investigated the Ohio justice system and questioned due process in the trial. She wrote:

Lay the blame where it belongs - with those who stood by and did NOTHING. Blame those who refused to cooperate with law enforcement and blame the parents who raised children without a moral compass, empathy or compassion.

Add in there the media, specifically CNN, for also throwing out their moral compass, empathy and compassion for a victim of rape. Our society should not be led to believe that individuals who hurt and scar others are the ones who deserve sympathy.

To have a media powerhouse publish a story that creates pity for those who have violated a teenage girl is media framing gone very wrong. Because media frames are incredibly powerful and can truly alter thoughts and opinions on a topic, journalists should understand their role in our world and be a bit more understanding of the humanity and emotions of the people they write about, before breaking news on a story.