Lessons From Steubenville: When News Fails to be Journalism

When our justice system attracts national attention from both the public and news outlets, it’s usually either due to the case involving defendants of a certain level of celebrity or one where the final ruling will likely set a precedent for future legal proceedings. Certainly, what has become collectively known as “the Steubenville Rape case” falls into the latter category. What makes this particular case such a landmark, however, is that it may be the first in which national attention seems to have spurred the case into court, and not the other way around.

The case has been steeped in controversy from the beginning, largely because the perpetrators of the crime not only fully documented their own actions, but also distributed that material on social media sites such as YouTube and Instagram for all the world — including their victim — to see. Why the boys made this decision, even taking into account the influence of peer pressure and however much alcohol they had consumed that night, is certainly open to speculation. Whatever the reason, the boys not only documented their own criminal actions, but they also committed them in full view of witnesses. Yet, reportedly none of these people did anything to intervene or remove the girl from the situation, even after she was clearly incapacitated. Nor did anyone report the boys’ actions to anyone in authority, even when law enforcement officials specifically asked for witnesses to come forward.

It’s precisely this apparent lack of concern for the girl, who the media have labeled “Jane Doe” to protect her identity, that’s sparked outrage among those who have followed the case. Last December, the New York Times was one of the first mainstream news outlets to bring what happened in Steubenville to greater public awareness, citing at the time that “Despite the seeming abundance of material online regarding the night of the suspected rape and the number of teenagers who were at the parties that night, the police still have had trouble establishing what anyone might regard as an airtight case.” But the venerable NYT seemed only to have been following up the story as originally reported by crime blogger (and former Steubenville resident) Alexandria Goddard, who has been credited by many in both the blogosphere and mainstream media for bringing the incident to light. Certainly, when the town’s residents refuse to speak publicly about the crime without the protection of anonymity for fear of reprisal, to an outsider following the case in the media, it gives some credence to Goddard’s (and later the hacktivist group Anonymous) open allegations that the “Big Red” high school football team is Steubenville’s own version of the Mafia, covering up or retaliating for the report of any player’s wrongdoing no matter how heinous. Such accusations might also be deemed plausible by anyone who saw any of the photos the boys and their friends posted online or this video, both of which demonstrate a blatant disregard for not only the human being they assaulted, but also the potential consequences of their actions.

In light of such readily available records of the boys’ behavior and attitude that night, as Jane Doe’s mother pointed out in her statement after the verdict, the boys convicted themselves long before they were ever charged — if not legally, then certainly in the court of public opinion. But whatever the legal implications social media might have had on the Steubenville case, there is a prevailing public sentiment that mainstream media outlets such as the San Francisco Chronicle and, most notably, CNN have taken far too sympathetic a view of the perpetrators with regard to the judge’s ruling. Not only did the Chronicle reiterate the manner in which Jane Doe was assaulted in a tone that could have been read as derisive (if not wholly unnecessary), the article also likened defendant Trent Mays to TV’s Eddie Haskell, the duplicitous but otherwise harmless “rascal” from the 1950s sitcom Leave it to Beaver. CNN’s live coverage of the verdict included an exchange between anchor Candy Crowley and reporter Poppy Harlow lamenting the boys’ loss of “such promising futures” as being “hard to watch” rather than the impact their crimes (which Crowley described as “rape essentially”) had on their victim. Fox News mentioned the victim by name on the air. ABC’s Good Morning America ran a segment that focused entirely on how the case has affected the boys’ lives, even commenting that being tried in juvenile court, with a judge who had been “brought in” from outside the community, would be “better for the defendants.” Like the defendants in the story they’re following, these reporters’ moments of apparent disregard for the victim of sexual assault have also been documented and distributed through various online means, and public response has been just as vehement.

However, as Robert Thompson, founder of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University explains in the Christian Science Monitor, it is precisely these various online outlets that traditional news media are struggling to keep up with. Victims of such high-profile cases are routinely shielded from media scrutiny, which means that coverage tends to automatically shift to the defendants. “TV news is driven by visuals. As newsroom budgets are slashed, the story that arises from wherever the visuals are most compelling is the narrative that will dominate.” Still, this does not excuse a lack of balance in reporting, according to Depaul University journalism professor Mark Tatge. “The mainstream institutions have a bigger responsibility than ever [for accurate and balanced reporting] in this [social media] environment. They are eroding standards and their positions.”

If there can be a bright side to such a case, the prevailing view seems to be that, whether or not you agree with the mainstream coverage of it, the case has brought to light the fact that these types of incidents are frighteningly common.

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