When the guilty verdict was announced in the Steubenville rape case on Sunday, journalists had to figure out how they would frame the story. Perhaps because of the lack of details about the unnamed 16-year-old “Jane Doe” victim, the collective media narrative became centered on her assailants.
The media's coverage focused on the rapists' emotions, instead of the the victim's.
Stories about the case relied far too heavily on the public details about the defendants, 17-year-old Trent Mays and 16-year-old Ma’lik Richmond, to set up a sympathetic portrayal of two bright young football stars whose lives have been ruined by the criminal justice system. By emphasizing the boys’ good grades and bright futures, as well as by describing the victim as “drunk” without clarifying that the defendants were also drinking, many mainstream media outlets became active participants in furthering victim-blaming rape culture:
1. CNN discusses how the boys were “promising students.” The cable channel came under fire on Sunday after focusing their coverage on the two defendants as “young men that had such promising futures, star football players, very good students” and emphasizing the emotional atmosphere in the courtroom when the boys were convicted and felt “their lives fall apart.” Anchor Candy Crowley even interviewed a legal expert about the lasting ramifications that being convicted of rape will have on the young, vulnerable boys — noting that registering as sex offenders will “haunt them for the rest of their lives.”
2. ABC News makes excuses for the rapist. ABC ran a profile of Ma’lik Richmond, one of the two assailants, leading up to the trial. Its portrayal was quite positive; it began with an array of excuses for Richmond’s behavior, including that “he was in a celebratory mood” the night of the assault, and talks extensively about Richmond’s promising football career. Another article opened by describing the criminal proceedings as “every parent’s nightmare and a cautionary tale for teenagers living in today’s digital world” — though the actual problem was the crime of rape, not that it was caught on video.
3. NBC News laments the boys’ “promising football careers.” Reporter Ron Allen opened up the NBC nightly news coverage of the Steubenville verdict by pointing out that the boys, “must now register as sex offenders.” It then went on to lament that “both boys had promising football careers, Mays a the quarterback, Richmond the receiver, on the beloved high school team and dreams of college. In court their lawyers and parents plead with the judge not to impose a harsh sentence.”