Respect of Victim Leads to Loss of Narrative

By Tonya B. Lewis

In the reviewing more than 50 news articles on the Steubenville rape case coverage in national and local media, a clear pattern seems to emerge–the loss of the victim’s narrative.

With the media’s policy of respecting rape victim’s privacy there comes an unforeseen consequence–the omittance of the victim’s story. What are her hopes, dreams and aspirations. Is she a good student that enjoys playing soccer? Is she a devoted mother, a doting aunt or a loving daughter?

The victim’s story is often overlooked while the details of her abuse is spread to national and in some cases, international audiences. The public is privy to her pain. Her rape becomes fodder for talk shows and pundits.  She is lambasted by critics who blame her for being raped.

Football Players Rape Charges

Protestors assemble in support of the Steubenville victim.

Even those that mean her well can do her harm. For instance, in the Steubenville rape case, members of Anonymous, a hacker collective, tried to hold the rapists accountable and published sensitive, unredacted documents that accidentally revealed the victim’s name to the world.

In the absence of the rape victim’s narrative, the story of her attackers becomes the lead. In the case of the Steubenville rape, the perpetrators were “star” football players with “promising futures.” Members of the media lamented the loss of the boy’s football career and their missed opportunities. (Check out ABC News’ story, Steubenville: After the Party’s Over.)

Trent Mays, Ma'lik Richmond

Trent Mays, 16, and Ma’lik Richmond, 17, at their defense trial for the rape of a 16-year-old girl.

This duality has revealed itself in the various articles I have analyzed for our Steubenville team research paper. Many of the news stories that mentioned the Steubenville rapists (they were convicted in juvenile court) also mentioned their athleticism and that they were star football players, big contributors to a powerhouse football program.  While that is not necessarily bad, it skews the story to one more focused on the rapists. The victim is reduced to–in this case–a “16-year-old girl,” the “Weirton, W. Va. girl”, a drunken “brunette.”I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the role of social media in this case. If it had not been for the teen’s who were involved in and were witnesses of the rape, there would have never been a case. It was the posting of images and videos on YouTube and Twitter that alerted the victim and law enforcement to the rape. It was the thousands of “profane and ugly” text messages volleyed between the rapists, victim, witnesses and schoolmates that created a detailed account of the events on the night of Aug. 11, 2012.  As the victim’s mother’s said to the defendants during trial, “You were your own accuser, through social media.”

More chargesThis is an age were teens share much of their lives  publically. Yes, I am still baffled as to why they felt it was acceptable to share such information online. Why was it okay to record, document and publish a girl’s rape? But, I’m glad they did, if not the rapists would have never been held accountable. And, the story isn’t over. Additional people could face charges in the case.

As we prepare to solidify our research findings, I realize the issue of rape in a small, Ohio town is more than an interesting story. These are real people who have been greatly affected by rape. Throughout the process of doing this paper, I have learned a great deal about what constitutes rape, what fair and balanced news coverage should look like and how to code (which is just as hard and time consuming as I initially thought). I am looking forward to presenting our research findings.

Thoughts on Preliminary Findings

 

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The Steubenville Rape Case continues to fascinate me.  Each member of the class was assigned a form of media to study and code and for the team paper.  For my part, I covered CNN and NPR broadcast transcripts.  Though I couldn’t honestly say that coding was “fun,” it was interesting to actually read a transcript instead of listening to or watching it.  My goal was to find various frames utilized in these in these broadcasts and code them for the paper in order to gather a larger understanding of what was being said about the case.  At first, I thought that finding these frames would be a simple task.  However, it quickly became obvious that I was wrong.  I ended up marking almost every transcript as neutral.  Although some common themes were presented throughout the transcripts, it was obvious that CNN was extra careful not to come down on one side of the fence.  They would use phrases like “many believe” or “some say” in order to remove themselves from accusations of bias.  The majority of the articles were more sympathetic to the victim’s side of things.  This is probably because of how agencies came under fire when the story first broke for providing too much sympathy for the perpetrators.  In the NPR transcripts, I found much more depth.  Rather than simply reporting the latest happenings of the case, they provided detailed interviews with experts about the morality of the case as well as our surrounding culture.  Many pointed out that girls AND boys need to be educated more about rape and what it means exactly.  They were mostly very equal in their treatment of the perpetrators and victim.  While NPR called for support for the girl involved, they were also sure not to bash the assailants and referred to the incident more as a stupid decision made by unguided teens than a crime committed by monsters.  It was also interesting to hear the viewpoints provided by listeners who called into the show.  Some of them had good insights on rape from their own personal experiences.  

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One thing that became obvious to me when studying this case is the power of social media.  Reports of massive protests in Steubenville from people who had never even met the girl really showed how these media platforms can create a frenzy.  I think this can be both good and bad for cases in the future.  Good in the sense that social media can help spread awareness about wrongdoings, but bad in the sense that facts can sometimes become skewed and people can get worked up about things that they don’t fully understand.  This was most evident to me in some of the interviews I read in the transcripts.  In my opinion, the case should have ended with the conviction of these two teenagers.  But because of social media and the movement that developed because of this case, it’s almost like type of witch hunt developed.  Suddenly people who knew next to nothing about the case’s details were accusing the entire town of Steubenville for condoning rape.  Because of the public outcry, law enforcement has been forced to conduct a massive research effort regarding individuals who were surrounding the case.  All this does is perpetuate the living hell that this girl has had to go through over the last year.  It has been expressed that she and her family just wish the case could be over so that she could start rebuilding her life.  I think many people have become too obsessed with selfishly punishing as many people as they feasibly can and have lost sight of what is truly best for the victim.  This is an example of two kids committing a horrible act while others failed to intervene.  It was not a giant conspiracy put on by Steubenville to ruin a girl’s life.