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Hackers associated with the group Anonymous have been helping to spread information about the horrific alleged rape that occurred in Steubenville, Ohio, last summer. And they’ve made it clear that they don’t think the case is being taken seriously enough. One of them tells Daily Beast reporter Winston Ross that if two members of the high school football team accused of the crime aren’t convicted, “we won’t hunt them down in a physical sense—no pitchforks.” But, he said, “I know we could make their lives very difficult.”
The role Anonymous “now plays in this case is certainly hard to reconcile, morally,” Amanda Marcotte writes in Slate. The group “has been vital in getting out at least some of the evidence of the assault to the media,” Marcotte writes, by digging up online information about people it suspects are involved in the crime. Part of the challenge for journalists is figuring out how much of the information to use, and how much of it is accurate.
By stepping in and holding people accountable, Anonymous stands a very good chance of taking action that actually does something to stop rape. But: This type of online vigilante justice is potentially invading the privacy of or defaming innocent Steubenville residents, and even if everything published is true, there are very serious legal limits to the Anonymous strategy.
One of the other challenges is balancing coverage of the accusers and the afflicted. Katie Heaney writes about “the glorified athlete suspect,” calling out “the media’s inordinate, and frequently fawning, emphasis on [Steubenville's] high school football team.” In her graduate studies, Heaney writes, she examined data on college sexual assaults in Minnesota over 12 years and was struck by the “proportion of news coverage lent to describing the alleged suspects’ athletic achievements.”
Unless we believe that athletic prowess in and of itself contributes to goodness of character, unless we believe that our heroes can do no wrong simply because they are our heroes, these records and these achievements have no place in media coverage of violent crime.