It seems as though – with the influx of opinionated online material and the popularity of polarizing cable news networks – we’ve continued to move further away from pretending as though the presentation of news is an unbiased production. While such a dismissal of a previously held principle will be bemoaned by some, in my mind there’s a benefit to acknowledging the source of one’s opinion and the motivation behind one’s commentary.

As much as we might despise the purposeful spin of the content being presented to us, the increased blatancy of a news organization’s perspective eliminates the pretense of objectivity. Such charades are ceased, along with the subtle trappings that accompany them. In its place we’re handed an exaggeration that’s easy to identify as it pushes us toward multiple sources in search of either acquiring the most accurate version of events or, far more likely, the version with which we might find the easiest to agree.

In a sense, it’s an elimination of authority. Much like a benevolent dictator might be the most preferable method of government, so to is unbiased news reporting the best possible presentation. Unfortunately, the fallibility of humans has produced a history of proving that neither option is actually possible, and so we’ve turned to better and less perfect alternatives.

In doing so with news, the importance of decisions in journalism has been highlighted. It seems remarkable now to imagine that past generations implicitly trusted what narrative – and the details that informed that narrative – a broadcaster chose to share with news consumers. However, the presentation of stories is always a matter of decision, and in making those choices, one expresses themselves and their biases, no matter how objective they attempt to remain.

On Sunday, Judge Thomas Lipps, presiding over a courtroom for a five day trial inside of a Steubenville, Ohio, courtroom, found high school football players Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond guilty of raping a 16-year-old girl. Both defendants were sentenced to a minimum of one year in a youth correctional institute after which child-service experts will determine the remainder of their sentence. They will also be registered sex offenders for the rest of their lives.

In telling this story, CNN chose to represent the perspective of the convicted rapists rather than the victim, a girl from West Virginia, who had come to Steubenville for a night in the summer of 2012 for a party, only to end up intoxicated and violated. This is the decision that CNN correspondent Poppy Harlow made during her on-air conversation with anchor Candy Crowley:

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 believed their lives fell apart…when that sentence came down, [Richmond] collapsed in the arms of his attorney…He said to him, “My life is over. No one is going to want me now.”

Crowley later asked legal expert Paul Callan to inform viewers about the future of the two young men.

Sixteen-year-olds just sobbing in court, regardless of what big football players they are, they still sound like sixteen-year-olds…what’s the lasting effect, though, on two young men being found guilty in juvenile court of rape, essentially?

Callan replied:

The most severe thing with these young men is being labeled as registered sex offenders. That label is now placed on them by Ohio law…That will haunt them for the rest of their lives. Employers, when looking up their background, will see that they’re registered sex offenders. When they move into a new neighborhood and somebody goes on the Internet, where these things are posted, neighbors will know that they are registered sex offenders.

While none of what was expressed on the broadcast was inaccurate, the tone and representation was clearly one-sided. This can be partly attributed to visible perpetrators versus a victim who had not spoken out publicly, and whose identity was being protected, but it remains difficult to justify, even for someone who dismisses the misplaced ideal of objective journalism.

Gawker’s Mallory Ortberg has written about this dissatisfaction best, criticizing Crowley especially, for extending a sympathetic voice and expressing an exaggerated concern for the future of the rapists.

Their dreams and hopes were not crushed by an impersonal, inexorable legal system; Mays and Richardson raped a girl and have been sentenced accordingly. Reporting like this presents viewers with anonymous female victims and dynamic, sympathetic, complicated male figures.

Unfortunately, CNN is hardly alone in providing coverage from this angle. Good Morning America’s feature, “The Steubenville Rape Case: What You Haven’t Heard,” focused largely on ”honors student” Mays and Richmond’s overcoming of great social obstacles. In fact, there are plenty examples of this type of strange victimization of the perpetrators long before the trial even began. BuzzFeed’s Katie Heaney documented this evident urge of the media back in early January, mostly examining a pair of pieces that appeared in the New York Times.

Again, the media have increased access to the perpetrators in comparison to the victims in such a case, and in this specific instance the phenomenon is only enhanced by the football playing status of Mays and Richmond in a football-mad town. However, Dan Wetzel of Yahoo! Sports has done a remarkable job in ruining any such an excuse for presenting a one-sided tone and perspective. Given the same limitations as all the other media outlets, Wetzel was able to craft a story that used the access he was allowed to condemn those involved with the incident by emphasizing their arrogance in perpetrating their crime.

A culture of arrogance created a group mindset of debauchery and disrespect, of misplaced manhood and lost morality. Drunk on their own small-town greatness, they operated unaware of common decency until they went too far, wrote too much, bragged too many times and, finally, on a cold Sunday morning, were hauled out of a small third-floor courtroom as a couple of common criminals.

Presenting anything less than this isn’t a matter of bias or perspective. It isn’t a matter of ideological concerns being openly displayed. It’s a lazy failure attempting to make a spectacle with only the available means of what’s being seen. It’s shoddy reporting in that it makes no attempt to pull back the curtain and give viewers the chance to see what’s happening off stage, which as always, is far more interesting, important and impactful. The news isn’t theatre. We’re not forced to sit in one chair and view the story only from that perspective.

With the dismissal of the idealism ascribed to objectivity in news reporting, journalists have to ask themselves the same questions that they now ask viewers, readers and listeners to ask: What else is there to this story? In the Steubenville rape case, many didn’t, and that’s how they dropped the ball.

Comments (23)

  1. Couldn’t believe the coverage to be honest. As a father of two daughters I think the little shits got off relatively easy. For some reason being good at football and in one case being an honour student gives you a pass. As for media objectivity I think that has surely gone the way of the dodo bird if it ever really existed at all.

  2. This is the weirdest thing. Especially given that so much of the coverage has been about the coverage prior to the judgment. I don’t know how someone at CNN didn’t look at this ahead of time and shut it down. It’s disgusting.

  3. You’re in the zone Parkes, don’t know what’s in the water at the score, but there’s some good stuff coming out from there.

    Your mentioning of the “narrative” compels me to mention to you the book “The Black Swan” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Highly recommend it if you haven’t already read it. This story above takes Taleb’s “Narrative fallacy” to a whole new level.

  4. Thanks Parkes. Excellent stuff as always from this blog.

  5. I saw some of these articles and decided to do a little digging into the details to form my own opinion. After finding more detail it is unbelievable the way these guys are being given the benefit of the doubt.

    Their futures weren’t ruined by the sentence. They were ruined when they took advantage of a passed out 16 year old girl and passed videos and photos around. Poor them.

    Reading about how they text message back and forth with the victim pleading to not place charges and suggesting she should be thankful that they looked after her while she was unconscious.

    • I was going to post this link, but you beat me to it.

      I have been following this story for a while and it is disgusting and disturbing. The evidence was so blatant and available from their string of tweets publicly placed comments, pictures, videos, etc. I remember one tweet specifically, I think it was posted by a graduated football alumnus from the same high school who was present at one of the parties, and it was along the lines of “The theme song of the night is definitely Rape Me by Nirvana.” These people knew what was going on while it was going on and thought it was funny, something worth joking about.

      The entire town should be ashamed of themselves and many people cooperated in an effort to sweep the entire escapade under the rug.

  6. I don’t know how many people out there remember tv before Ronald Reagan removed the “fairness act” when a station wanted to express an opinion on a news subject the General manager or Owner would appear in studio and we were told quite plainly that the following opinion is not that of the station but of the GM or owner, we were not expected to take their opinion as the news but just that, their opinion, so I have to disagree, not having Bill O”Reilly’s beleifs screamed at me, or CNN’s over Liberalism choking up the screen was nice, people had to form their own opinions based on, God help us, facts.

  7. I agree with everything in this article, but am also upset with the people who have used this case to further a simplistic ideological agenda. In particular, I think of groups that contend this case proves we live in a ‘rape culture’. Of course, it is concerning that convicted rapists are described as good kids and honor students by the media, but I would contend this has more to do with our culture’s idolization of athletes and less to do with our culture’s hatred of woman and acceptance of rape.

  8. I am disgusted by this coverage…Not once was the impact of RAPE on the VICTIM mentioned…excellent read and horrifyingly educational Parkes…

    • I don’t want to fully absolve the media, but it is easier to focus on the rapists because we actually know something about them. I mean, nobody would even be covering this story if it didn’t involve two popular football players. Since we know very little about the victim, it is harder to focus on how she has been affected. The victim becomes dehumanized, but sadly, that seems understandable given that we know almost nothing about her. Of course, this does nothing to explain why the media spent so much time talking about what good kids the rapists are supposed to be.

  9. After following this case I can’t believe that the story isn’t focused on how easy these assholes got off. They ARE sex offenders and if they moved into my neighbourhood I WOULD want to know about it. These are two scary individuals who clearly have no sense of common decency and zero compassion for others. This is the mark of a dangerous psychopath. A year in jail? Are you kidding me? Fuck ‘em both. I hope their lives are ruined. There is no defense for what they did.

    • Not a big believer in restorative justice, eh?

      • Do you have any daughters Fred?

        • I try and form my opinion on what is best for society. You form your opinion on irrational emotional fears.

          • I’ll take that as a “no”. BTW how do you figure you know what’s best for society? Anything more we need to know about you Fred? Please help the rest of us poor citizens out of this confusion but try not to fall off that high horse as you do it.

          • Facts are a good place to start in a public policy discussion. When you use facts, you can compare different justice policies from different jurisdictions and conclude which one works best. For example, it is pretty conclusive that throwing people in jail and hoping for them to suffer as much as possible usually won’t make the inmates better people when they get out. It may be emotionally satisfying, but it harms society. This isn’t rocket science – look at the differences between the American and Norwegian prison systems.
            Your argument is idiotic anyways. Are you claiming that people with daughters are the only ones who are qualified to participate in this discussion? Because if everyone could imagine their daughter being raped, then they would be completely rational and understand that all rapists should be put to death?
            Linz, please don’t pretend your opinion is based on anything but emotion. Asking whether someone has a daughter proves you are only looking at this issue from a personal emotional perspective.

    • Minimum of one year in a juvenile detention centre, however their freedom at that point is contingent upon the “Juvenile Authorities” which is, I would imaging, the juvenile equivalent of a parole board. At the discretion of these “Authorities” they could be detained until age 21.

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