CNN Steubenville Coverage Did More Good Than Harm

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Credit: Raymond M./ at optikalblitz on Flickr, under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC 2.0).

(WOMENSENEWS)–I realize that parts of CNN’s coverage of the two young men found delinquent for committing the crime of rape in Steubenville, Ohio, may have seemed too sympathetic, as captured in the .

But personally, I won’t join the ranks of critics who say CNN was too compassionate in its coverage of the court proceedings involving the judgment and sentencing of Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond.

Among other things, a sympathetic tone from a few reporters after the verdict and punishment had been imposed had no chance of affecting the court’s rulings, unlike the gushing coverage from virtually every network during Kobe Bryant‘s rape case, which did affect the judicial process to the detriment of the victim in that case, and women as a class. Those proceedings deserved tons of petitions from women’s rights groups, but got none.

Rape of a victim who lacks full capacity to consent is shockingly common in the United States. One-in-4 young women will be raped during her time in college, and intoxicants–especially alcohol–are almost always involved. Offenders are rarely held accountable, which largely explains why incidence rates are so high.

It’s fair to say that CNN, like other media outlets, paid lots of attention to the perpetrators’ ruined lives and strong emotional reactions to the judge’s announcement of the verdict and punishment. But CNN also ran plenty of damning coverage of the young men and repeatedly addressed the significance of the guys being named and shamed on national television. I even appeared in one lengthy segment on the network and had ample opportunity to speak to the serious nature of the offense, without anyone so much as implying that the guys deserved sympathy.

Full disclosure: I appear on network and cable news shows all the time as a legal analyst, including CNN. But anyone who’s seen my work as a pundit for almost 20 years knows that I’m not shy about criticizing the media. In fact, I run a project at my law school where my students and I use sociolinguistic research to critique the language used in law and media to describe violence against women, and no court official or news source is beyond our criticism.

Some pundits at CNN won’t even appear on the same program with me because I slammed them on-air for saying something offensive about a court case.

Loud and Clear Message

However, in this instance critics are ignoring the value of CNN‘s important role in bringing public attention to bear on the case for months, including showcasing the verdict and punishment. CNN‘s coverage overall sent a loud and clear message to young people who were watching: Raping an intoxicated person leads to serious consequences and will affect your life forever. Whatever one thinks about the tone of the criticized coverage, other media outlets provided little or no coverage of the case–which is far worse than a few moments of misplaced emotion by one or two reporters.

National news coverage of even one incident can help offset the all-too-common sentiment that it’s somehow permissible to take advantage of a drunk person for sexual pleasure.

The victim in will soon begin to recover and move on. But the young men who were sentenced last weekend will forever be known as those disgustingly creepy guys who raped a drunk girl. For that we have to thank, in part, CNN, which provided more coverage of the case, and for far longer, than any other national media outlet.

We also have to thank online activism from groups such as Anonymous and the Ohio Chapter of the National Organization for Women, who got the media-attention ball rolling in the first place.

Reasonable people can argue about whether some of CNN‘s coverage evoked sympathy or was an effective message that will deter other young men from committing similar offenses. But make no mistake, millions were paying attention when two teenagers were found guilty and sentenced to spend between one and two years in a juvenile detention facility, maybe even more, for actions that too many young people think of as harmless pleasure.

The single voice of one teenager in one case, lifted up by a groundswell of compassionate supporters, televised news coverage and citizen activism, may well transform rape culture for an entire nation.

‘Take a Lesson’

Now that two high school students from a revered football team have been held accountable, against all odds, it’s time for all victims to take a lesson. If one 16-year-old can prevail against beloved football players and the powerful adults who supported them, then all victims can feel hopeful that justice is possible.

College women have been learning this lesson a lot recently, and have been blazing their own trails. One young woman forced the University of Virginia to submit to federal investigation and oversight for violating rape victims’ civil rights under Title IX, the federal law that prohibits gender discrimination, including sexual assault, in education. A growing number of other victims have taken on schools like Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Notre Dame, the University of North Carolina and the University of Montana.

With a little help from federal law, Internet-based activism and powerful media outlets, campus sexual assault will become a thing of the past — as it should have been more than 40 years ago when Congress first enacted Title IX for the purpose of prohibiting all discrimination “based on sex,” including sexual harassment, the most severe expression of which is rape.

Even though important civil rights laws like Title IX have been in place for a long time, we still have a long way to go, culturally.

That so many young men get pleasure out of raping young women who lack capacity to consent due to drugs or alcohol–especially at the college level–is disturbing enough to raise serious questions about who is raising our sons. Where are these young men learning about sex and relationships and why on earth do they think rape is enjoyable?

Possible New Charges

The Ohio attorney general, Mike DeWine, asked similar questions in his comments after the verdict in when he announced that a new grand jury would soon be investigating the possibility of new charges against as many as 15 other young people who were present at the crime scene.

Unlike most states, Ohio allows for the prosecution of individuals who know about, but fail to report, criminal activity. Those bystanders might also face charges of accessory to rape and-or joint venture rape if they provided active support to the perpetrators.

Attorney General Dewine is right to keep the heat up on, not only because the whole nation is watching but also because there’s something very wrong with a culture of young people who thought nothing of the sexual brutalization of a near comatose female teen. They were so nonplussed even after the fact, they felt free to share photos and videos of the event and joke openly about how terrific it was to rape a person who’s as “dead as Caylee Anthony.”

Maybe the attorney general’s new investigation will uncover the reasons why so many seemingly nice parents in one small town managed to raise their boys to believe it’s OK to rape a drunk person.

The world is full of people who lack sufficient powers of self-protection, whether due to mental or physical illness, or temporary incapacity due to drugs or alcohol. The key question is why haven’t we dedicated enough energy to teaching young people that these are vulnerabilities to be respected, not liabilities to be exploited for personal pleasure?

Put another way, while the line between rape and “sex with a buzz” might not always be clear, our young people need to be taught that if there’s any doubt that a person has capacity to consent, the only civilized option is restraint.

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4 thoughts on “CNN Steubenville Coverage Did More Good Than Harm

  1. “The victim will soon begin to recover and move on. But the young men who were sentenced last weekend will forever be known as those disgustingly creepy guys who raped a drunk girl. For that we have to thank, in part, CNN, which provided more coverage of the case, and for far longer, than any other national media outlet.”

    Seriously? You’re going to get asked back on CNN a lot after this PR piece. I feel sick to my stomach. 1) You evidently have no idea what it’s like to be a rape victim. This is not something that you “move on” from, especially after it makes international news and you get death threats. 2) And we should congratulate CNN just for showing up? Never mind that they showed up to sympathize with the perps! Hello! Your message proves you are brainwashed by rape culture yourself and I am horrified that Women’s eNews published this story. We should all be holding everyone’s feet to the fire without apology if they bow to rape culture. Period.

    Wendy Murphy and Women’s eNews, now YOU owe an apology to the public!

    • It’s unfortunate that you would find my comment about the victim
      “moving on” as insulting. Indeed, I put it in there without
      attribution just to see whether the so-called “protest” against CNN was
      sincere or not and you took the bait. The comment about the victim
      “moving on” was a direct quote from the victim’s mother that she made
      in a statement she gave after the verdict. I’ll be sure to share your
      insult with her.

      You have no business judging any victim or any mother of a victim – and
      if you REALLY gave a damn about media coverage of rape, you would have spoken out against the plethora of media coverage that GUSHED over Kobe Bryant and promulgated vicious and overtly false claims about the victim having “sex with three men in three days.” But you did not speak out. Nobody did. Thus, you have no moral authority to say ANYTHING about a couple of reporters on CNN who didn’t use the right “tone” to make you happy.

      Blatant hypocrisy in this protest destroys the value of the so-called
      “protest” in this case because NONE of the signatories who claim they don’t like CNN’s coverage said a word about the vile media coverage in the Kobe Bryant case. Nor have ANY of them written petitions to protest the outright failure of most mainstream media to
      even cover the Steubenville case at all, which is profoundly more sexist than the sympathetic tone of a couple of CNN reporters.

      As soon as you have the guts to speak up against widespread offensive,
      sexist and degrading coverage of a victim in a case involving a man
      like Kobe Bryant, you will have the right to speak critically about
      relatively minor concerns such as the “tone” of a couple of reporters
      on CNN.

      Until then – YOU should apologize to the mother of the victim in THIS
      case for your insulting judgment of HER feelings about HER daughter.

      And you should probably spend more time thinking for yourself, instead of jumping on a bandwagon like a lemming, the next time a petition lands in your in-box.

      • I don’t think this exchange was helped by all the heat. If I had it to do over, we’d simply inform the reader that the idea of “moving on” came from the victim’s mother. Trauma leaves indelible marks, of course, and what it means to “move on” must be left open to a range of interpretations. Let’s try to keep this comment space safe for respectufl disagreement. Corinna Barnard, editor

  2. I appreciate this article for putting some of the lash and backlash in a broader perspective. I have been following this case and the media responses. It does place a sort of mirror on our cultural beliefs about rape.

    I think criticizing CNN is one valid way for people to confront rape culture. I think it is helpful in that it turns up the heat on questioning how to portray these things on national news. I also appreciate your pointing out the bigger problem of not reporting. I agree that for CNN to keep up with the story at all is doing something helpful. From what I can see, the nature of their coverage both confronts and perpetuates rape culture in different ways, and I thank you for making that clearer to me. I think this is a good article full of very current reflections on rape culture.

    For culture to change, you will find those in many stages of change along the way, even if it changes quickly… which rape culture has yet to do. CNN reflects this in their own way. Those who criticize CNN are also a reflection of this. Not all people are aware of every news story, most of us fall in and out of activity around taking in news, sharing it, and responding to it. It is worth mentioning that certain things get reactions of disgust or outrage while others don’t, and helpful to guide those full of passion over ending rape culture into wider and perhaps more effecting directions. I don’t agree that any one person is a hypocrite for speaking up about one thing and not another… there could be any number of reasons for that within their own lives.

    If we are going to turn rape culture around, we (the broad community of people who would like to see it end) do better to help each other expand the dialogue and encourage each other towards what we believe is effective. A little fire can help sometimes, but I think it would be more helpful if there were less finger shaking at those expressing their urge to change it in a way we deem inferior to ours. I’m not just referring to this article… it seems that most news or blogs are taking aim as an introduction to their topic. Can’t we take common disgust over rape culture and sincerely honor it, then talk about differences in approach from there? We all have a choice whether to agree or not with anything we read, but why alienate each other from the start?

    Overall though I really like this article. I think it describes the issues taking into account many angles and with a solid ethical ground regarding the issue of rape itself. Let’s keep the conversation going and continue to envision what we do want young people to be learning about healthy sexuality, as well as how adults portray it (and lack thereof).