Terrance Heath

Media Joins Victim-Blaming Culture After Steubenville Verdict

Filed By Terrance Heath | March 20, 2013 4:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Media

I’m not sure which is more despicable. First, CNN spends more time grieving the impact of the guilty verdict on the lives of the two convicted rapists in Steubenville, than discussing the impact of the actual rape on the life of the 16-year-old victim.

CNN broke the news on Sunday of a guilty verdict in a rape case in Steubenville, Ohio by lamenting that the "promising" lives of the rapists had been ruined, but spent very little time focusing on how the 16-year-old victim would have to live with what was done to her.

Judge Thomas Lipps  announced on Sunday that Trent Mays, 17, and Ma'lik Richmond, 16, would be given a maximum sentence after being found guilty of raping a 16-year-old girl while she was unconscious. Richmond could be released from a juvenile rehabilitation facility by the age of 21 and Mays could be incarcerated  until the age of 24.

CNN's Candy Crowley began her  breaking news report by showing Lipps handing down the sentence and telling CNN reporter Poppy Harlow that she "cannot imagine" how emotional the sentencing must have been.

Harlow explained that it had been "incredibly difficult" to watch "as these two young men - who had such promising futures, star football players, very good students - literally watched as they believed their life fell apart."

It’s bad enough that sympathy for the rapists crowded out any mention of the victim and the impact on her life. We almost expect that kind of thing from Fox News, but CNN? Naturally, it gets worse when we actually turn to Fox News.

Where CNN forgot the victim entirely, Fox News went so far as to aired the name of the victim.

On Monday, Fox News' America's Newsroom aired the name of the underage victim in the Steubenville rape case.

During a report by correspondent Mike Tobin, the station aired a clip of 17-year-old Trent Mays, one of the rapists, apologizing in the courtroom on Sunday.

In the clip, Mays states: "I would truly like to apologize to [redacted], her family, my family and the community."

But unlike CNN, which aired the same clip on Monday, Fox failed to redact the victim's first name when airing the clip.

In an editor's note in an Associated Press piece published on Fox's website Sunday, the news organization stated they were going to refrain from listing the names of the minors in this case.

It’s just her first name, but I can imagine that in a town the size of Steubenville, that will be enough for anyone to put her name together with those of the defendants, and figure out exactly who she is. Most media outlets have refrained from revealing the name of the victim, but have aired the names of the defendants because they’d been identified in other news coverage, and their names were used in open court.

Now that Fox has revealed the victim’s name, I wonder if Fox will repeat its offense and if other news outlets will follow suit, now that she has been “identified in other news coverage.” Perhaps the media hasn’t learned one of the four lessons of the Steubenville case.

4. Even now, victim-blaming is all but inevitable. The equivalent of a conviction doesn't mean the girl's suffering is over. If you need evidence of that, check out the Public Shaming Tumblr,which includes social media commentary like, "Be responsible for your actions ladies before your drunken decisions ruin innocent lives." Closer to home, two of the girl's friends testified against her, calling her a liar and saying they were no longer friends because she had insisted on staying out that night. The victim's attorney told the press, "The mom and the daughter and the family want people to know rape's not acceptable conduct." On Sunday, the legal system recognized that. But the broader culture still has a long way to go.

In the post linked above, Irin Carmon names two more rules:

1. They thought they could get away with it. The release of text messages sent that night and immediately afterward make it clear that at least some of these kids, particularly Trent Mays, knew what had happened was wrong. It's just that they had reason to believe they would operate with impunity. One teen texted Mays the next day, "You're a felon." Mays subsequently said, "I shoulda raped now that everybody thinks I did." (He had at one point said he'd had intercourse with the girl, then said he didn't; digital penetration is rape under Ohio law.) But Mays' damage control is telling: In a text, he referred to football coach Reno Saccoccia: "I got Reno. He took care of it and shit ain't gonna happen, even if they did take it to court." Mays also said that the coach said that next time they got into trouble, they'd be suspended for three games.  "But I feel he took care of it for us," Mays wrote. "Like, he was joking about it, so I'm not worried." Unluckily for Mays, the coach wasn't quite as powerful as believed.

2. The bystanders could have prevented it. One of the witnesses, Evan Westlake, wasn't drunk, and when he realized one of his friends was too drunk to drive, Westlake tricked him into handing over his keys. Yet as Yahoo News' Dan Wetzel points out, Westlake didn't think to intervene in the same way when he saw the girl passed out on the floor being violated by Mays and Richmond. (On Sunday, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine said he would ask for a grand jury to investigate whether there would be further charges.)

If they thought they could get away with it, and if bystanders felt it was OK to watch a rape and not try to stop it, it’s because of the culture of victim-blaming that would have kept the rape out of the headlines and out of the courts had the perpetrators and the bystanders not been stupid enough to record their crime, and leave a trail of evidence on social networks.

I’d like to believe that the Steubenville verdicts are a blow against rape culture. Perhaps they are. But we’ve got much further to go where the victim-blaming culture is concerned.

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