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Beyond Steubenville, rape case inspires action, angst among victims (+video)

The Steubenville rape case, like other high-profile sex-assault cases, has been a moment for victims nationwide to come forward. Some are emboldened, others feel re-traumatized.

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The tone of the coverage can make a difference in how it impacts survivors and other news consumers.

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Statements by the defense and many social media posts surrounding the Steubenville trial have included “a lot of victim-blaming language,” says Katie Hanna, executive director of the Ohio Alliance to End Sexual Violence.

In response, her group has teamed up with the NSVRC at the site of the Steubenville trial – and online – to try to educate the press and the public about sexual assault.

Some of the key messages they’ve promoted so far: that if someone is impaired by alcohol, she or he cannot consent; and that rape is rape, and the trauma is the same, regardless of how the victim is assaulted.

“When individuals [in online comment sections] say things like ‘The girl deserved it’ … it brings up anger [and other strong emotions] for me,” says Mr. Stiles. “I find myself jumping in and responding to those comments.”

Stiles says he has learned to detect when he needs to back off his own media consumption – and that’s an important coping skill for many survivors of abuse. He followed the Steubenville case closely on Wednesday, he says, but by Thursday night he knew he needed a break and didn’t read about it at all (he is a rural projects specialist and is not among the staff who traveled to Ohio).

In general, media coverage of such cases has improved, Stiles says.  “I’ve seen a higher level of understanding about how to work with survivors and not make it so sensationalized.” But local coverage and cases with certain characteristics do still tend to be sensationalized, he said – for instance, if a young man in the military came forward after being sexually assaulted, Stiles expects it would garner major attention and bring a lot of stereotypes to the fore.

As difficult as it is to face the alleged acts in such cases, news coverage “may help victims understand that they shouldn’t feel guilty, that other people have gone through something they’ve gone through, and that they’re not alone,” says Gemma Puglisi, a professor of public communication at American University in Washington.

In Steubenville, she says, the case against the teen football players is bringing to light a similar issue raised in the Sandusky case – that athletes shouldn’t expect to escape consequences when they do something wrong.

Cases of rape in which the victim is intoxicated are often discussed in the context of college, but not so often in the high school context, she says. “I think it’s going to really be a wake-up call for teenagers to understand how they need to respect one another.”

Educators and parents should provide guidance to young people who are reading and hearing about these cases, so that they won’t be traumatized by the details, advocates say. Schools do tend to reach out more for educational talks during high-profile cases, Miller says.

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