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.
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With trust in the media at an all-time low, he adds, mainstream outlets cannot afford to lose more viewers over instances such as these.Skip to next paragraph
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TV news is driven by visuals, points out Robert Thompson, founder of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University in New York. “As newsroom budgets are slashed, the story that arises from wherever the visuals are most compelling is the narrative that will dominate,” he points out. “The courtroom with the two boys and their families is where the cameras were pointed,” says Prof. Thompson.
“This was the drama that was unfolding at the moment that the verdict was read, and this is the narrative that was being captured,” he says, noting that the victim in a highly sensitive case such as this is not present. So unless the media outlet makes a conscious effort to balance the coverage, he adds, “her story is not part of the narrative.”
“This is the news that was breaking,” adds Brett Pulley, dean of the Scripps Howard School of Journalism and Communications at Hampton University, in Virginia. He points out that since this case was not in the public eye over a sustained period of time due to the underage defendants, the national media entered the story at an explosive moment for the accused. “The verdict was what everyone was focused on, this is where the cameras were all trained, he says, “this was the national news, not the victim.”
But, says Mark Tatge, journalism professor at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind., the intensity of a highly-telescoped trial puts an even larger burden on the traditional media to get the coverage right.
“Mainstream media, in particular broadcast media, have become very narcissistic, very inner focused on the moment, with less and less emphasis on facts and reporting,” he says, and more on competing with a social media environment that fosters more opinion and personality with fewer facts. The mainstream institutions have a bigger responsibility than ever in this environment, he points out, adding, “they are eroding standards and their positions.”
Outlets such as The New York Times or CNN “should be setting the standards and leading the way so that there are still examples for newer media to follow,” he says.
CNN needs to step up to the plate, says Gene Grabowski, Executive Vice President of LEVICK, a Washington-based, crisis management firm. “They have absolutely nothing to gain from standing up to these groups on this issue and appearing to be boorish or insensitive to the victim in a rape case,” he says, adding, “it would be something else if this were some fringe issue, but it’s not.”
This is a particularly sensitive issue, he says. CNN itself is in the midst of a larger upheaval. Former NBC entertainment chief Jeff Zucker has recently been installed to staunch CNN’s ratings slide. “Restoring trust” is vital for an industry under fire, adds Mr. Grabowski.
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