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.


  • Mallary Jean Tenore

    As managing editor of The Poynter Institute’s website,, I report on the media news industry, edit the site’s How To section, and moderate the site's live chats. I also help handle the site's social media efforts, and teach social media sessions on the side.


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