CNN’s Steubenville coverage called too sympathetic to teens found guilty

Journalists took to Twitter Sunday to criticize the media’s coverage of the two teenage boys who were found guilty in the Steubenville, Ohio, rape case.

Lauren Wolfe, Xeni Jardin and others called out CNN’s Poppy Harlow and Paul Callan for sympathizing with the men and highlighting that the woman who was raped was “allegedly drunk.” On Monday, Fox News, CNN and MSNBC aired the woman’s name. Think Progress called the move “an act of serious journalistic negligence.”

“What I’m so furious about, after the act perpetrated on this young woman, is our media’s take. Mainstream media, of course, reflects society — so in this case, they reflect rape culture. But shouldn’t we expect more from the media? Aren’t there such things as news judgment and context and analysis?” said Wolfe, director of the Women’s Media Center’s Women Under Siege project.

“Why is nearly no outlet … bothering to ask what’s wrong with masculinity in this country, with the arrogance of those defending a football team rather than a young woman who was violated? How could the media possibly be putting the emphasis on [the fact that] the girl drank? Did the boys not drink?”

Wolfe also criticized Nightline for saying the Steubenville debacle is a “cautionary tale for teenagers living in today’s digital world.”

“As if the problem was what the boys did online, not that they raped a 16-year-old girl and then bragged about it publicly,” Wolfe said.

CNN’s Harlow talked about how the charge against the two young men “literally watched as their life fell apart.” She didn’t talk, though, about the traumatic effects that rape can have on young women.

Several times in the past, news organizations have left out important context or used language that suggests the rape victim was at fault. The New York Times was criticized for doing this in 2011 while covering a gang rape in Cleveland, Texas.

When journalists first began covering the Steubenville case earlier this year, they revealed little about the young woman. Because she hadn’t spoken out and her identity was being protected, coverage focused mostly on the men. In January, for instance, Matt Lauer interviewed the attorney and ex-guardians of Ma’lik Richmond, one of the teenagers who has been found guilty.

Richmond’s ex-guardians portrayed him in a positive light and said they supported him. Childhood photos of Richmond flashed across the screen as they talked. At the time, it was hard not to wonder, “How is this affecting the young woman? Is there anyone to advocate for her?”

There was also a lot of talk in the media about the teenage boys’ roles as football players, aka “glorified athlete suspects.” In January, BuzzFeed’s Katie Heaney wrote that an accuser’s athletic achievements can serve as “a legitimate alibi absolving them of wrongdoing.”

Salon’s Irin Carmon touched upon this issue when describing CNN’s coverage (which Gawker also criticized).

“Yes, networks are limited in how much footage they can show when it comes to the victim and her family, whereas they can show the boys’ emotional breakdowns, but Harlow was narrating events and not limited to footage. Yes, these boys are young. But the seriousness of their crimes was utterly glossed over in favor of a sideshow about whether a father told his son he loved him,” she said via email. “We rarely see such compassion evinced for young offenders when the crime isn’t rape, or when they lack the social status of football players.”

Wolfe and Carmon both pointed to a journalist who did a good job covering Sunday’s Steubenville news: Yahoo Sports’ Dan Wetzel. Wolfe praised his column for “going beyond the obvious” and “smashing victim-blaming.”

Wetzel wrote about the complexities of town where “a culture of extreme arrogance collapse[d] in two tearful rape convictions.”

Put in the spotlight was the local football team, which, critics said, allowed players to brazenly operate seemingly above the law for years. Social-media accounts, self-made videos, photos and classless text messages exposed an entire world that seemed like a Hollywood script of a high school team out of control.

He also offered context about the seriousness of rape:

Rape, experts say, is a crime of power and control more than sex. Underlying all of that is arrogance, and in Steubenville it was taken to the extreme.

There’s no doubt that covering rape is difficult; it takes time and resources to report on the nuances of the crime, offer context about how common rape is, and explore both sides of the story. But that’s exactly the kind of reporting we need more of.


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  • Can’t Believe It

    Don’t blame the reporters. Sports is a religion for many, and a lot of newsrooms are very jock-y. At the very least, like all Americans these reporters have been raised on the idea that football and basketball players are exalted beings who are entitled to get away with “naughty boy” crimes–no matter how heinous.

    And don’t blame Ohio or Pennsylvania either. College football and basketball stars all over the country feel entitled to rape whomever and whenever they wish, and the first thing the universities do is close ranks, keep the local police and prosecutors away, and protect the athletes. The schools then pretend to take action via internal investigations or “honor courts” or simply shaming the victim into silence. So it’s no wonder these boys felt they could commit any crime they wished, they knew that football players get special treatment.

    The real surprise is that these two young men were convicted at all. So let’s raise a glass to the brave prosecutor who took on this case despite very daunting odds.

  • Jennifer Williams

    I was watching CNN when the verdict came in and I immediately called my “Star Football Player Son” to come and watch the news cast. He is 15yrs old and I gave him the gist of the story asked him to sit down and gave him a lesson in how to treat every human being he comes in contact with in life. I ask him to think of every girl as his sister. That if something is being done to a girl and it is wrong for his sister then it is wrong for that girl too. I also implored him to not stand by and allow bad things to happen to people who are not in a position to help themselves but to do the right thing always.

    I just hope and pray that all the things that I have taught my son over the years will somehow find it self into his consciousness if that time should ever come.

  • CPO_C_Ryback

    And the NYT and Time could start using an age-specific photo of Trayvon Martin, too. But that would take thinking, work, and effort.


    Poppy Harlow makes me sick, why the new found sympathy for a couple of rapists. what about the victim who speaks for her ?……..CNN should ask for her resignation .WHY ?……because true professional journalism is stating facts not expressing personal opinions. … just the pure facts.

  • Jack Stansbury

    “Put in the spotlight was the local football team, which, critics said, allowed players to brazenly operate seemingly above the law for years. Social-media accounts, self-made videos, photos and classless text messages exposed an entire world that seemed like a Hollywood script of a high school team out of control.”

    Sounds almost word-for-word what was said about the Penn State football team and the abhorent culture that was part of it. I hope whoever is in charge of high school athletics in Ohio has the same resolve as the NCAA had, and shuts down the Stuebenville high school football team.

  • Jennifer Crispin

    Yes. For once, a victim managed to have her rape investigated, prosecuted, AND convicted. This was a cause for feeling like there has been progress, like maybe we’re going to start telling men (and in this specific case, promising athletes) that they are not entitled to our bodies. Instead, Crowley, Harlow, and Callan painted it as a tragedy. NOT that the boys raped, but that they were convicted and sentenced for rape.

  • Jennifer Crispin

    Please don’t be so quick to leave Crowley out. She referred to it as “rape, essentially.” Which sounds an awful lot like skepticism that the assault and penetration of the unconscious girl was actually rape.

  • Barney L. Cornett

    You know what sickens me the most about Matt Lauers Comment is that deep down, it sounds like he doesn’t think these 2, 16 year old Rapists deserved the sentence they got and the way CNN’s Poppy Harlow jumped on the Sympathy Bandwagon for these 2, 16 year old Rapists has got to be the most outrageous Reporting I’ve ever seen!

  • Robert Weller

    In addition to the worrying so much about the rapists, which CNN continued this morning with film instead of words, there was the issue of describing the victim as drunk. That probably had to be said, but not in the lede. It implied she was partly responsible for what happened to her. This Time the New York Times was careful not to do that.

  • Roger Head

    Well, they sure didn’t score the game-winning touchdown. No joy or glee in the verdict. Just that justice was done to the rapists and that more should be prosecuted if there is to be real justice in our country for all.
    The fact that the newsheads sympathized with the perps is sick in itself.

  • RapeNeverCanBeJustified

    Yes, they should have heralded the conviction of these rapists. The young woman testified how much she had to drink and based upon her behavior it appears that she was given a drug, which is by the way is so common that we call them “date rape drugs. As a society we should condemn, loudly, the idea that because these men had promising futures that this should somehow should mitigate their actions. Shame on these young men, shame on their families, shame on their community, and shame on CNN for failing to put this felony crime in the light it deserves.

  • Katie Urich

    Yes, yes they were, because what the RAPISTS did was disgusting and damn right they should be punished for it.

  • Jill Miller Zimon

    Mallary, Thanks for writing this piece. I think you did a very good job highlighting the problems with the coverage.

  • Adriana Pena

    They could say “The teenagers were weeping, in contrast of their callousness in which they treated a young woman like a piece of meat and bragged about it. I guess it is no fun when it happens to you instead of someone else. May this experience teach them emptahty for the suffering of others.”

  • Haki Crisden

    This story compares a column about the case as a whole to video reports minutes after the verdict was passed. That’s an absurd comparison. The cnn reporters were covering the verdict, and had just left a courtroom with sobbing teenage boys and their parents. Were they supposed to emerge with big smiles on their faces, slapping high-fives and saying “Yeah, baby! Those bastards are heading to jail!”?

  • Stephanie Hughes

    We need to stop Victim Blaming and start holding people accountable. We need to also hold the parents accountable for underage drinking. It should not matter how good a football team is or anything else.

  • Roger Moore

    Lots of typos — missing words, repeated words. Maybe proof it again.

  • valerie

    why is matt lauer asking if the defense couldve done more in steubenville case.. does he not know the case against these monsters??? appauled.