Steubenville rape trial: why media came under fire – and what is at stake
The Steubenville rape trial had already sounded an alarm over the use of new media. But in their rush to cover the verdict in the sensitive case, mainstream media, too, were found wanting.
Just as the Steubenville rape trial has highlighted the need for the responsible use of new media, the mainstream media’s coverage of the sensitive case has also fallen short, adding to a record level of mistrust for national media, say a range of industry watchdogs.Skip to next paragraph
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The story involves two minor boys, star athletes who were convicted over the weekend of raping a 16-year-old girl during a night of drunken partying in August.
Social media images from that night went viral – one 12-minute video made by another participant full of graphic descriptions of the night has garnered nearly 1.2 million hits.
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But in rushing to cover the verdict, at least two major cable outlets have come under fire for serious on-air missteps.
Fox News has been widely criticized for crossing what most media regard as a clear-cut line by using the underage victim’s name on air.
But CNN, the flagship of 24-hour news, has also become the target of widespread online outrage for its extended coverage following the verdict. In various segments, respected CNN anchor Candy Crowley discussed the verdict with her team of reporters and analysts, using words such as “tragedy” to describe the impact – not on the young victim – but on the lives of the two convicted boys.
Reporter Poppy Harlow said, it was “incredibly difficult even for an outsider like me to watch what happened as these two young men that had such promising futures, star football players, very good students, literally watched as they believe their life fell apart.”
The discussion continued along these lines, including legal analysis of the permanent requirement to register as sex offenders. There were no comments from the victim or from rape advocacy groups.
Within a day at least three online petitions reacting to CNN’s coverage sprang up, calling it “awful” and calling for redress. By Tuesday the petitions had gathered some 200,000 signatures. The verdict that the judge handed down was justice – not a "tragedy," one petition reads, adding, “the tragedy was the rape. Please apologize and make this right.”
CNN executives have spoken anonymously to trade outlet The Wrap, defending Ms. Harlow, but have not officially responded to the petitions. CNN also has not answered Monitor requests for comment. But, say media watchers, there is a cautionary tale for all broadcast media in this moment.
“It used to be that if you made mistakes, you had consequences for them. People lost their jobs, and faith was somewhat restored, ” says former ABC and CBS newsman John Goodman, now a public relations professional in New York. But now, he says, the pressures on commercial media are driving down traditional journalistic standards to the point where mistakes are made and nothing happens. “We all just move on.”