The New York Times finds itself embroiled in controversy after publishing an article on a horrific gang rape that occurred in Cleveland, Texas. Citizens (most notably young feminist organizer Shelby Knox) are striking back, taking to Change.org to demand that the Times apologize and also deftly illustrating how advocacy can serve to illuminate bias in how stories are reported.
The piece, written by James C. McKinley, Jr., came under fire for stacking the coverage so that the piece heavily quoted from those who blamed the victim for her predicament, mentioned precious little about the boys and men involved in the assault, and focused heavily on revealing class markers instead of illuminating the details of the case.
As an example, let’s examine one of the key issues in the piece — McKinley gave space only to people who said it was the girl’s fault that she was sexually assaulted:
“Residents in the neighborhood where the abandoned trailer stands — known as the Quarters — said the victim had been visiting various friends there for months. They said she dressed older than her age, wearing makeup and fashions more appropriate to a woman in her 20s. She would hang out with teenage boys at a playground, some said.
” ‘Where was her mother? What was her mother thinking?’ said Ms. Harrison, one of a handful of neighbors who would speak on the record. ‘How can you have an 11-year-old child missing down in the Quarters?’ “
In contrast, Cindy Horswell of the Houston Chronicle chose a different type of framing for her piece. Typically, journalists attempt to get people who represent both sides of an issue to comment in their stories. Horswell, while describing the same event, managed to get a variety of views, but did not slant the coverage in favor of one side or the other:
“Some Cleveland residents, like Kisha Williams, are critical of the 11-year-old’s parents.
” ‘Where were they when this girl was seen wandering at all hours with no supervision and pretending to be much older?’ she asked.
“Several churches have organized special prayer events for the town.
“Carter Williams, 64, seated at a small card table playing dominoes inside a local grocery, does not think laying blame is the right response to the sex assault.
” ‘This is a praying time for the young men and the young girl,’ Williams said. ‘Seems like everyone in this whole town needs some God in their life.’ …
“Over the Thanksgiving holiday, retiree Joe Harrison noticed an 11-year-old girl as he walked past an abandoned trailer to play dominoes with friends in what locals call ‘the Hood.’
“He thought the girl looked older than her years with her long hair and dark makeup. She was standing near the aging brown trailer, which was partially covered by a blue tarp and had remained unoccupied since Hurricane Ike except for an occasional drug user who would sneak inside to smoke crack.
“Later, Harrison heard loud music blaring from that same trailer on Ross Street. But he thought the girl had already been picked up by her mother. He never realized anything horrible might have happened until weeks later when the arrests started.
” ‘I have a granddaughter that age and can’t imagine anything like that happening to her,’ he said. ‘Whoever did this should pay for it.’ “
In addition to the missing perspectives, McKinley leaves discussions around the boys involved frustratingly vague. Only briefly touching on the identifying affiliations of some of the suspects, he then puts forth a very loaded framing, noting (emphasis mine): “Among them is, if the allegations are proved, how could their young men have been drawn into such an act?”
The framing of this question as a way to unify the piece is an indirect way to infer that the young men accused are the real victims here — not the girl who was sexually assaulted.
Gina McCauley, the founding blogger of What About Our Daughters, doesn’t accept that one sided line of questioning. McCauley has extensively covered incidents of sexual violence toward black women, particularly assaults that are geared toward black women and children. After explaining the similarities in coverage between this incident and a similar gang rape of a young girl in Milwaukee in 2008, McCauley calls out the language of enablers:
“Did I mention that this allegedly took place during Thanksgiving Week??? Why didn’t the women of Cleveland know where their sons, husbands, fathers, uncles, nephews and cousins were in and around THANKSGIVING?? I know where mine were! Did I mention this was during the holidays??”
McKinley doesn’t ask this question. McKinley doesn’t make any reference in his piece to trying to speak to the girl’s mother, any of the suspects’ parents or relatives, or the teacher who turned in the video.
There are no direct quotes from investigators, attorneys, or child services — all parties who are currently involved in preparing the case or dealing with the child’s well-being. In fact, the only person of authority quoted in the piece is Stacey Gatlin, the spokesperson for the Cleveland school district.
What’s interesting is what McKinley chooses to spend time on: the description of poverty in the area.
“But there are pockets of poverty, and in the neighborhood where the assault occurred, well-kept homes sit beside boarded-up houses and others with deteriorating facades.
“The abandoned trailer where the assault took place is full of trash and has a blue tarp hanging from the front. Inside there is a filthy sofa, a disconnected stove in the middle of the living room, a broken stereo and some forlorn Christmas decorations. A copy of the search warrant was on a counter in the kitchen next to some abandoned family pictures.”
The picture of poverty he paints is a way of class-coding the incident. The facts are clear on where the girl was assaulted. So why spend a paragraph describing the place?
Combined with the one-sided nature of the information presented, McKinley paints a voyeuristic picture that makes the rape look like a terrible event in a desolate, poor part of town — part of the cost of living in an impoverished area.
This is particularly disappointing when one realizes the space could have been used to provide more details. The Chronicle’s Horswell provides only a basic description of the trailer, but manages to illuminate so much more about the case:
“James D. Evans III, an attorney who represents three of the defendants, insists: ‘This is not a case of a child who was enslaved or taken advantage of.’
“Investigators note an 11-year-old can never legally give consent. …
“Neither Cleveland police nor Child Protective Services would discuss the safety issue or a closed-door hearing with the family held Friday in Coldspring. State District Judge Elizabeth Coker said a gag order has been issued.”
The purpose of journalism is to illuminate issues, provide context, and produce fair coverage about the incidents that occur in our world. The New York Times piece does not meet this standard.
At best, McKinley’s article is shoddy journalism, presenting less than half of a story, providing no context for what has happening, and focusing on trivial details to the detriment of the full story. What makes it more egregious is that the Times linked directly to the better sourced, better framed Chronicle article — yet still produced a piece which upheld both class bias in reporting and what feminists term “rape culture”: a cultural norm that encourages blaming the victim of sexual assault or rape while exonerating the perpetrators.
McKinley may not have intentionally set out to create a biased article. But that was the end result. And those who are practicing journalism would do well to be aware of the ways in which we can perpetuate injustice and bias through the words and framing we choose.
Editor’s Note: New York Times Public Editor Arthur Brisbane wrote Friday about reaction to the coverage, saying “the outrage is understandable.” Brisbane also says the Times is working on a follow-up story.