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Steubenville: The day television news died

By | March 20, 2013 | Opinion

Despite it being the job of news outlets to provide the facts, let’s face it: Sometimes they get it wrong.

Occasionally, details of a story are mixed up, or a source is accidentally misquoted or the reporters are rushing to get out any information about a breaking story, some of which later turn out to be incorrect (as was the case with the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting).

But in the case of the recent Steubenville rape trial that has created a flurry of reports across the country, many major news outlets got it wrong for an entirely different (and much worse) reason.

Yes, the stations (CNN, FOX, MSNBC and ABC, among others) got the facts of the case right: In 2012, two high-school football stars in Steubenville, Ohio, one age 16 and the other 17, manually raped a 16-year-old girl at a party. The girl was intoxicated to the point of being virtually unconscious. The boys took photos and videos of the girl (many of which were very explicit, and illegal in and of themselves), including close-up photos of them performing acts on her. They posted some of these materials on social network sites, like Twitter and Instagram.

There is far more to the story, as well. The boys’ football coaches and the small town in general tried to cover up the charges when they first arose, attempting to protect their cherished football players. The coaches joked around and said they’d “take care of” it, and there are documents to prove they tried to do this, and yet they kept their jobs.

What went wrong along the way, however, is an example of a much larger issue in this country about the nature of rape culture.

As the guilty verdict was announced for the two boys and they were sentenced to about one to two years in a juvenile rehabilitation facility, CNN reporters Candy Crowley and Poppy Harlow lament how the lives of the boys were ruined.

“It was incredibly emotional, incredibly difficult … 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 life fell apart,” Harlow said.

She continues to describe how one of the rapists collapsed and began crying. “My life is over,” the boy said. “No one is going to want me now.”

At this point, CNN cuts to the courtroom, showing Trent Mays, one of the rapists, apologizing. And CNN aired the girl’s name as Mays said it (FOX and MSNBC did as well). A 16-year-old. A rape victim. Who now has a slew of people angry at her for “ruining” the “promising” lives of these boys. Putting her in serious danger. She had already received death threats when her identity was anonymous, but what now?

And yet, the rapists did not apologize for actually raping the girl – merely for taking and distributing the photos, which incidentally where the most damning evidence in the case, in addition to thousands of text messages. If you have any doubt of their guilt, you can read full transcripts of some of these texts online, if you can stomach it.

A CNN legal contributor, Paul Callan, then chimes in with, “The most severe thing with these young men is being labeled as registered sex offenders,” he said. “That will haunt them for the rest of their lives.

CNN wasn’t the only one.

Good Morning America profiled the two boys, ending the segment grieving “the almost-certain demise of their dreams of playing football.”

Many news stations made the issue revolve around teen alcohol abuse, or about the dangers of social media. True, but missing the point.

Hardly any of the news broadcasts talked about the effect this will have on the young girl who was actually raped — the real victim — not the football players who have to spend a few years in a detention center.

“But oh no, they will forever be labeled as rapists!” Yes, they will, as they very well should be, because that’s what they are.

“But they had such promising futures as football players!” So what? They made the choices that they made and now have to suffer the consequences.

“But she was drunk!” Yes, and that was her responsibility, but that does not mean that she is free to be raped. They could have just as easily helped her get home safely.

“But…!” No. No buts. No excuses. No feeling sorry.

The various news outlets should never have sympathized with these boys. It is irresponsible journalism, and even worse, irresponsible human ethics.

These two boys raped a girl. A girl who was so inebriated that they started calling her “dead girl.” And laughed about it. And took photos of her naked. They sent the photos to their friends. They bragged about “hitting it for real.”

Twitter was abuzz with responses to the case (#Steubenville). The following quotes are all real tweets:

“Shouldn’t they charge that Lil Slut for underage drinking???”

Yes, possibly, but still missing the point.

“Maybe if you don’t want to get raped, don’t get blackout drunk. Just a thought”

Just a thought: Nobody wants to get raped. That’s the definition of rape.

“I honestly feel sorry for the boys in that Steubenville trial. That whore was asking for it.”

No, she was too drunk to ask for it, even if she did want it. But no answer is not a “yes.”

“Steubenville: Guilty. I feel bad for the two young guys, Mays and Richmond, they did what most people in their situation would have done.”

No, they didn’t. “Most people” would not rape an unconscious girl.

“The Steubenville story is all too familiar. Be responsible for your actions ladies before your drunken decisions ruin innocent lives.” (Posted by a female, surprisingly enough.)

Innocent lives? She ruined their lives by getting raped? In no sense of the word does that make them innocent.

These tweets illustrate the issue of rape culture: We live in a society that teaches women to avoid getting raped, not one that teaches men not to rape.

A woman could be walking down the street in lingerie, or even completely naked. That doesn’t mean she’s “asking” to get raped.

A woman is not obliged to have sex with you if you buy her a drink or take her out to dinner. (Related note: Buying her so many drinks to make her so incoherent that she can’t consciously say “no” is also rape.)

A woman could willingly have sex with 100 men, but that does not mean she will automatically sleep with you. It does not give you the right to assume that just because she likes sex, she won’t mind getting raped. It also does not make her a bad person or immoral, but that’s a discussion for a separate article.

It does not matter that she was drunk. It does not matter that they were all underage. It does not matter how she was raped or with which what part of the body she was violated. They completely disregarded her worth and virtue as a fellow human being. Rape is rape, and it is never acceptable.

Even if the girl did not remember what happened or was not severely physically harmed, the experience takes its toll. Rape victims can face emotional roadblocks, can have a hard time forming intimate relationships and can have flashbacks in otherwise innocent circumstances.

Women should not need to be encouraged to carry a gun to protect themselves. Their clothing does not need to be censored so that men will not be “tempted” to rape them. They should not have to cover their drinks to avoid getting drugged and raped.

But unfortunately, that’s not the reality of the world we live in. And that’s a problem.

The discussion needs to teach teenage boys to respect women. They need to be taught what rape means and what constitutes it. It needs to be made evident that rape is a serious issue.

And this girl is not alone. Similar incidents happen to thousands of women in this country, and millions across the world. One in four women will experience sexual abuse during her lifetime, and 54 percent of rapes never get reported. Accounting for this, only 3 percent of rapists ever end up in jail.

In a way, I’m glad that the Steubenville case blew up as big as it did. It is cases like this that bring these important issues to the forefront of the public’s eye, much the same as Brown vs. Board of Education helped overturn racial segregation.

This could have been a great opportunity for the media to address this serious problem in our country. This could have been a chance for positive social change.

But no. Instead, it was turned into a spectacle of two boys, guilty of rape, who became martyrs for the masses.

Perhaps the public’s response to the indiscretions of these news outlets will prevent such a breakdown of journalistic morality and common decency in the future. One can only hope.

And if you’re still not getting it, maybe this mocking tweet by comedian Damien Fahey will put it all into perspective:

“ ‘Hitler’s promising art career tragically cut short.’ – CNN in 1945”

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3 Responses to Steubenville: The day television news died

  1. William S. says:

    Good article. Our culture is always changing, and the fact that values are being cast aside for a defense of rape perpetrators, is simply barbaric. Anyone who would blame the victim needs a psychological examination, and those two “promising” rapists deserved far worse than a year in juvenal hall.

  2. Renee H says:

    Fantastic article! I can only hope that more journalists write these kind of articles. These two young men ruined their own lives by their actions, this young lady should have support not death threats! I agree 100% that our society needs to teach young men to respect women, there has been such a backward attitude about women and their roles and rights lately, it makes me shake my head to think I have lived through and fought for women’s rights that have lost so much ground lately.

  3. Pamela says:

    THANK YOU! I was so disheartened to read this from a R.A.I.N.N. member this morning (http://www.toledofreepress.com/2013/03/21/torres-my-rape-my-reality-and-the-steubenville-rape-case/) but reading your post made me know that there are still people with hearts out there.

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