New York Times, Houston Chronicle tell different stories of 11-year-old’s rape

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 to demand that the Times apologize and also deftly illustrating how advocacy can serve to illuminate bias in how stories are reported.

Police say an 11-year-old girl was raped in this abandoned trailer in Cleveland, Texas. Eighteen men — ages 18 to 27 — have been accused of participating in the attack. (Pat Sullivan/AP)

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.

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  • Anonymous

    Has anyone ever considered the possibility that this could have been an act of pimps initiating a girl into prostitution? The fact that they recorded the action on a cell phone makes it all seem very suspicious.

  • Anonymous

    The New York Times has always had a problem covering stories that happen outside their cultural comfort zone. To much of their staff, Cleveland Texas is even more foreign than Libya.
    BTW hasn’t anyone here ever watched a telenovela? Lots of Latinas have blond hair.

  • Anonymous

    Sailer is a misogynist, racist troll who should be ignored.

  • Anonymous

    NO. Rape should *never* be used as punishment. And even if she were 18 years or older, that STILL wouldn’t excuse what was done to her.

  • Anonymous

    “Pretending”? Oh, right, I forgot, misogyny isn’t a **real** societal problem. It’s not real unless it affects teh menz.

  • Alfred Ingram

    Assigning any blame to an eleven year old is hienous. Blaming the neighborhood or social class is stupid. This crime occurs in all economic dlassed and all neighborhoods. the only difference class makes iis the upper end of the spectrum the accused have better lawyers , more resources and the victims and their families often keep these events quiet. There’s something seriously wrong when our response to violent assault is to ask whayt the victim did wrong.

  • Anonymous

    The NYT is tying itself in knots because the perpetrators are all black and the victim is Hispanic. So it’s having trouble figuring out how to make whites the villain, as in the Jena case or the Duke rape case. Above all costs, it must avoid any reporting that makes blacks look bad (see any “looting” story).

  • John Smith

    My comment here is in reference to another gang-rape case that happened in California at around the time of the Duke Lacrosse case. I meant to post it as an addendum to another comment.

  • John Smith

    BTW, I know the victim was white for one reason and one reason only (because even the local news ignored race in their coverage of the case): One of the local news stations interviewed a witness (black female) witness who passing described the victim as having blond hair.

  • John Smith

    That’s exactly right, Steve. By the way, almost exactly contemporaneously to the Duke Lacrosse case, there was a gang rape of an 11-year-old white girl (foster home runaway) by a dozen black community college football players in Fresno, CA. This story received zero coverage in the national media.

  • John Prewett

    MAKES ME WANNA HOLLER by Nathan McCall Published 1995 pages 45-46

    “It was the first day of summer vacation. I was fourteen years old and had just completed the eighth grade, marking the end of my junior high school days. I was sitting at home, watching TV, when the telephone rang. “Hello,” I said.

    “Yo, Nate, this is Lep!”

    “Yo Lep, what’s up?”

    “We got one. She phat as a motherfucka! Got nice titties, too! We at Turkey Buzzard’s crib. You better come on over and get in on it!”

    “‘See you in a heartbeat.”

    When I got to Turkey Buzzard’s place a few blocks away, Bimbo, Frog Dickie, Shane, Lep, Cooder, almost the whole crew about twelve guys in all were already there, grinning and joking like they had stolen something.
    Actually, they had stolen something:

    They were holding a girl captive in one of the back bedrooms.

    Turkey Buzzard’s parents were away at work. I learned that the girl was Vanessa, a black beauty whose family had recently moved into our neighborhood, less than two blocks from where I lived. She seemed like a nice girl. When I first noticed her walking to and from school, I had wanted to check her out. Now it was too late. She was about to have a train run on her. No way she could be somebody’s straight up girl after going through a train.

    Vanessa was thirteen years old and very naive. She thought she had gone to Turkey Buzzard’s crib just to talk with somebody she had a crush on. A bunch of the fellas hid in closets and under beds. When she stepped inside and sat down, they sprang from their hiding places and blocked the door so that she couldn’t leave.

    When I got there, two or three dudes were in the back room, trying to persuade her to give it up. The others were pacing about in the living room, joking and arguing about the lineup, about who would go first……..end quote

    Author Nathan McCall is a college professor and has a website

  • Steve SailerS

    This fiasco reminds us that race normally trumps gender in America’s culture wars (e.g., Johnnie Cochran wanted to pack the OJ jury with blacks and Marcia Clark wanted to pack the OJ jury with women, so they wound up packing it with black women, and we all know who proved smarter) … unless race is left out of the account, as with the NYT’s two essays on the Cleveland 18.

    Because the NYT refused to mention that the accused rapists were black, readers were left to focus on gender, and were outraged by what they read. They hadn’t been alerted that they were supposed to feel sympathetic toward the accused because they were black.

    As America gets ever more diverse, media institutions will run into ever more of these quandaries where Designated Victim Groups victimize each other with white males being uninvolved. That’s going to cause ever trickier times in newsrooms.

  • John Prewett

    MAKES ME WANNA HOLLER by Nathan McCall Published 1995 pages 44-45

    “Different groups of guys set up their own trains. Although everybody knew it could lead to trouble with the law,
    I think few guys thought of it as rape. It was viewed as a social thing among hanging partners, like passing a joint. The dude who set up the train got pats on the back. He was considered a real player whose rap game was strong.

    I think most girls gave in when trains were sprung on them because they went into shock. They were so utterly unprepared for anything that wild that it freaked them out. By the time they realized that they’d been set up, they were stripped naked, lying on a bed or in the backseat of a car, with a crowd of crazed looking dudes hovering overhead.

    I always wondered what went on inside girls’ heads when that was happening to them.

    Afterward, most girls were too ashamed and freaked out to tell. They knew that if they snitched to the cops, the thing would become public news and their name would be mud. But every now and then, some chick squealed, and somebody caught a charge. Then guys got their buddies to go to court and testify that the girl was a footloose ‘ho’ whom they each had boned.

    Most girls seemed to lose something vital inside after they’d been trained. Their self esteem dropped and they didn’t care about themselves anymore. That happened to a girl named Shirley, who was once trained by Scobe and so many other guys that she was hospitalized. After that, I guess she figured nobody wanted her as a straight up girl.

    So Shirley let guys run trains on her all the time. ………end quote

    Author Nathan McCall is a college professor and has a website

  • Steve SailerS

    The New York Times does not normally invest much coverage in local police blotter news from outside the NY region. New York Times readers, reporters, and editors are not much interested in dog-bites-man crime stories from across the country of Blacks Behaving Badly. As Tom Wolfe pointed out in Bonfire of the Vanities, those kind of stories are boring, depressing, and politically unwelcome.

    When the NYT does focus on far off crime news, such as running a couple of dozen articles whooping up the Duke Lacrosse Rape Hoax, they do it because it because A). It’s interesting in a man-bites-dog way (Whites Rape Black! 25 Great White Defendants! ) and B) It fits the Agenda, it furthers the Narrative of White Bad, Black Good.

    So, let’s have some sympathy for the NYT reporter and editors who are told to cover this horrible example of Blacks Behaving Badly in Texas. What do you do?

    First, don’t mention race. A lot of NYT subscribers will assume that this is a story about those horrible Republicans who infest Texas.

    Second, act sympathetic to the accused blacks. Look how far the national press went with the Jena 6, in which six star black high school football players jumped a white youth and continued to stomp him even after he was unconscious on the ground. To the local reporter who covered it, the big theme was how these star football players had been allowed to run amok for years because they helped the local high school win in a football crazed small town — a pretty interesting and important angle.

    But to the national press, the natural thing to do was to sympathize with the accused blacks and turn it into a giant whoop-te-doo over that old favorite Narrative: White Racism.

  • Anonymous

    Just go to Google and type in the following:

    Cleveland Texas rape black Hispanic

    The Daily Mail’s headline is particularly direct:

    Horrific gang rape of 11-year-old girl sparks racial tension as all the accused are black and the victim Hispanic

  • Poynter

    Thank you all for the thoughtful comments on this piece. It’s encouraging to read your nuanced understanding of how sexual assault is covered and how it should be.

    Those of you who have raised questions about the race of the young girl attacked and the race of the young men charged with the assault, can you share where you’ve seen that information? If the attack involves racial tensions in the Texas town of Cleveland, that seems an important part of this story which has not been included yet in the coverage. –Julie Moos, Poynter Online

  • Anonymous

    Class markers? Class-coding? Class bias? We have no reason to think there are any class differences between the Black rapists and the Mexican victim. However, there is a salient racial difference, and we can safely assume that that difference explains the Times’ outrageous decision to blame an eleven-year-old rape victim while sympathizing with her attackers.

  • Flux Research

    So where were McKinley’s editors when this journalistic atrocity was being committed in the NY Times?

  • Steve SailerS

    The NYT’s sympathetic coverage of the Cleveland 18 is reminiscent of its sympathetic coverage of the Jena 6, the high school football stars with long records of violent behavior, who stomped an unconscious high school student. In contrast, the NYT’s intensive coverage of the Duke Lacrosse 25 who were falsely accused of rape, was unsympathetic in the extreme.

    What could possibly explain this pattern?

  • Gordon Michael Avery

    A child is a child is a child. Even if she was demented & walked around nude.NO EXCUSE. I hope the guilty parties in this are prosecuted to the full extent of the law.I further hope they can experience the horror they put this baby through by being brutally gang-raped themselves~~~in prison.

  • S_kitty

    “McKinley leaves discussions around the boys involved frustratingly vague”

    While I agree with your piece in general, I take issue with you describing the rapists as ‘boys’ at all. The oldest of those arrested was 27. The ring-leader was 19. Overall, from what I’ve read, at least half of the attackers were 18 or over. Anyone over the age of 18 is considered an adult, so at least half the attackers can only accurately be described as men.

    I know you probably didn’t mean anything by it, but there’s a pattern in coverage of rapes of underage girls of making the rapist sound young and innocent, while highlighting how ‘mature’ the girl was for her age: dressed older, not a virgin, acted older, etc. The facts of the matter are, an 11-year-old girl was lured away by an adult man and raped by a large group of men and boys. Referring to all those involved as children (girl and boys) makes it sound like some childish endeavor, which it certainly was not.

  • Madame Hardy

    Brava, and thank you, thank you.

  • Heather Gehlert

    Fantastic analysis, Jane! So glad you weighed in!

  • Heather Gehlert

    The Chronicle piece blames the victim as much if not more than the NYT article. It describes the child’s behavior and appearance in an uncomfortable and inappropriate amount of detail and, as erinmcd mentioned, says the child “vows to learn from her mistakes.” I don’t see how Gina McCauley’s quote adds any value. Although she doesn’t blame the child, she implies that the female family members of the alleged rapists are somehow responsible for not knowing where their men where. Um. Right. Why quote the weakest part of that blog? The Chronicle and NYT pieces send a dangerous message that boys will be boys, and all three send the message that women and girls are responsible for keeping men in line.

  • John Beaty

    That the Chron’s article was better sourced and framed than the Times’ doesn’t mean it was either perfect or complete. Just better. There’s are limits to how much filking any one person can do with a atrocity like this.

  • Anonymous

    Ok, I just lost brain cells trying to reason that one out.

  • Cowboy Coder

    All these articles pretending this and that and not one mentions the elephant in the room. The girl was Mexican and all 20 of the rapists are African American, and everybody in this town hates Mexicans.

  • Jane Ellen Stevens

    Amen to your conclusions, Latoya. But I don’t think the NYTimes or the Houston Chronicle articles covered this incident adequately. Both still focus too much on the behavior of an 11-year-old child. She is 11 years old. It does not matter what she wears or doesn’t wear. It wasn’t just her mother that did not protect her. The entire community did not protect her. And the community, including the reporters, are perpetrating the culture of abuse and violence.

    In addition to your suggestions, other questions that the NYTimes and the Houston Chronicle reporter should have asked to provide context: What in this environment allows this kind of behavior? Behavior like this does not come out of nowhere; it’s the tip of the iceberg. What other culturally accepted sexually abusive behaviors are common that allow this kind of behavior to bubble up?

    The article said there were 18 young men arrested. I absolutely agree with you that the article portrayed them as the victims. It should have provided as much information as possible on all of them, not just a few. Are any of them still in jail? How many of them have previous arrests for rape or other violence? Do any of them have restraining orders against them? What’s the next step for all of those arrested? Have there been other reports of gang rape or other rape in this area? Is the police department doing all it can in dealing with violence against women and girls in this community? What do the battered women’s shelters say about how the police and other local authorities, including the medical community, handle rape victims?

    This reminds me of all the articles on domestic violence that ask: “why doesn’t she leave?” instead of “why does he hit her so hard and so often that he breaks her nose, her jaw, and her arm while their six-year-old watches and screams in terror”?

  • Chad Harris

    This is so ridiculous I can’t stand it! It does not matter where her parents were, or how old she looked, or whatever stupid reason they bring up. She was 11 yrs. old. Enough said! I get the feeling Ted Poe will have some influence on this matter, and I hope he does!

  • Amy Reynaldo

    Right, Roger—as if it’s somehow more *acceptable* to ponder the gang-rape of a grown woman. By 18+ assailants! Unimaginable.

    Thank you, Ms. Peterson, for providing so much of the perspective that was absent in the original NYT story.

  • Anonymous

    Better sourced and framed Chronicle article? You’ve got to be kidding. The Chronicle article, both when I first read it a few days ago and again just now, strikes me as being disturbingly apologetic and poorly (carefully – almost feebly) written. Consider this sentence – not a quote, but an invention of the reporter: “She vows to learn from her mistakes.”
    There are a dozen more like that – the choice to write “having sex with” versus “being assaulted/raped by” also seems to have escaped the Internet’s otherwise magnificently honed magnifying glass.

  • Anonymous

    “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.’”

    What???? How on earth could ANYONE make that argument?

  • Roger Sunderlin

    so if she looked 20 it was ok for these animals to rape her.

  • Christina Halasz

    Objective, tasteful Western reporting recognizes the LEGAL INFRACTIONS of the crime, while also placing emphasis on the perpetrators; expressing SYMPATHY for the victim. Iranian newspapers might blame the victim, but last time I checked, we were not in Iran.