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.

2 thoughts on “Respect of Victim Leads to Loss of Narrative

  1. I agree, Mike Hryn. IHowever, in an effort to keep coverage truly object, reporter’s should elimate the negative and glowing descriptions of perpetrators. It skews coverage to be more focused on the perpetrator’s–their lives, loss of their future, career, etc.

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