When the guilty verdict was announced in the Steubenville rape case on Sunday, journalists had to figure out how they would frame the story. Perhaps because of the lack of details about the unnamed 16-year-old “Jane Doe” victim, the collective media narrative became centered on her assailants.
Stories about the case relied far too heavily on the public details about the defendants, 17-year-old Trent Mays and 16-year-old Ma’lik Richmond, to set up a sympathetic portrayal of two bright young football stars whose lives have been ruined by the criminal justice system. By emphasizing the boys’ good grades and bright futures, as well as by describing the victim as “drunk” without clarifying that the defendants were also drinking, many mainstream media outlets became active participants in furthering victim-blaming rape culture:
1. CNN discusses how the boys were “promising students.” The cable channel came under fire on Sunday after focusing their coverage on the two defendants as “young men that had such promising futures, star football players, very good students” and emphasizing the emotional atmosphere in the courtroom when the boys were convicted and felt “their lives fall apart.” Anchor Candy Crowley even interviewed a legal expert about the lasting ramifications that being convicted of rape will have on the young, vulnerable boys — noting that registering as sex offenders will “haunt them for the rest of their lives.”
2. ABC News makes excuses for the rapist. ABC ran a profile of Ma’lik Richmond, one of the two assailants, leading up to the trial. Its portrayal was quite positive; it began with an array of excuses for Richmond’s behavior, including that “he was in a celebratory mood” the night of the assault, and talks extensively about Richmond’s promising football career. Another article opened by describing the criminal proceedings as “every parent’s nightmare and a cautionary tale for teenagers living in today’s digital world” — though the actual problem was the crime of rape, not that it was caught on video.
3. NBC News laments the boys’ “promising football careers.” Reporter Ron Allen opened up the NBC nightly news coverage of the Steubenville verdict by pointing out that the boys, “must now register as sex offenders.” It then went on to lament that “both boys had promising football careers, Mays a the quarterback, Richmond the receiver, on the beloved high school team and dreams of college. In court their lawyers and parents plead with the judge not to impose a harsh sentence.”
4. The Associated Press and USA Today stress that the victim was drunk. The first sentence of the AP’s story about the verdict identifies the victim as a “drunken 16-year-old girl,” and describes the defendants as “two members of the high school football team that is the pride of Steubenville.” The breaking news tweet did, too. Meanwhile, the first sentence of USA Today’s coverage also describes the victim as “drunken” and mentions that the assault took place at “an all-night party.”
5. Yahoo News says the victim has forced the town into an emotional situation. As the trial unfolded in the small town of Steubenville, OH, over the past several weeks, Yahoo News set up a clear narrative: The town is being torn apart from the pain over the fact that the boys might be punished, not from the outrage over the crime they committed. Yahoo’s story on the verdict was more of the same, describing the courtroom as “filled with sobbing and exhausting emotion” and the victim as “an intoxicated 16-year-old girl” in the first paragraph.
It’s worth noting that, since the two defendants could have been tried as adults, they received relatively lenient sentences. The two boys were each sentenced to at least one year in a juvenile detention facility and could remain imprisoned until they turn 21. “These are serious offenses,” the judge who handed down the verdict pointed out. “If they were convicted in an adult court of these charges, they would be spending many years in prison.”
Change.org has launched a petition asking CNN to apologize for its Steubenville coverage.
An earlier version of this story contained a video from CNN. That video has been removed, because it reveals the victim’s name.