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?
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.