New York Times follow-up on Cleveland, Texas rape story corrects, repeats original mistakes
In a follow-up story, The New York Times has offered new context while also repeating some of the same mistakes it made in its previous coverage of an 11-year-old Texas girl who was allegedly raped by 19 young men.
The story published Tuesday features an exclusive interview with the girl’s father and provides details of the six attacks authorities say occurred over several months.
The report also describes the sixth-grader’s home and family environment. It identifies the ethnicity of the girl but not the race or ethnicity of the suspects, who were described in the story as "an eclectic group of young men.” Some say the men have been targeted because they are African-American.
People quickly criticized the Times for its initial story, saying it blamed the victim. Executive Editor Bill Keller called it “ham-handed." In a petition, 47,000 people asked the news organization to apologize for its coverage.
Several days later, Times Public Editor Arthur Brisbane weighed in. In his piece, headlined “Gang Rape Story Lacked Balance,” Brisbane wrote that the story was seriously flawed:
“The story dealt with a hideous crime but addressed concerns about the ruined lives of the perpetrators without acknowledging the obvious: concern for the victim. …
“I hope it [the follow-up story] delves more deeply into the subject because the March 8 story lacked a critical balancing element."
Today's Page One story received much less attention. The little notice it did receive was mostly positive, with praise for the the new information about the crimes and the victim.
The follow-up story may offer the "balancing element" Brisbane sought, but in attempting to do so it raises additional concerns.
As of last week it wasn't clear whether the follow-up would even run. But plans changed this week, according to Philip Corbett, associate managing editor of the Times.
"The reporters kept working at the story and eventually came up with new material that provided more detail and a fuller picture — most notably, by interviewing the victim's father, which added more perspective on the family and more information about the whole sequence of events," he said via email. "That persuaded editors that there was now enough new material for the follow-up story."
Racial issues remain muddled
While the initial story was criticized for not identifying the race of the suspects, the follow-up makes the same questionable call.
Tuesday's story says that the victim is "a sixth-grader whose parents are immigrants from Mexico." However, the story doesn't mention the race of the 19 black suspects, and it doesn't show photos of them as many other news organizations have. It seems odd, then, that the victim's race would be included.
Corbett explained the decision:
“In providing a fair amount of detail about the victim's family — including their economic troubles and health problems — it seems reasonable and appropriate to mention in passing that the parents are immigrants from Mexico. That certainly wasn't a focus of the story.”
Corbett’s explanation doesn’t seem to line up with the Times’ policy, which says that race should not be included unless it's relevant to the story and that relevance is clear to the reader.
When I interviewed Corbett for a story earlier this month about the relevance of race in the Cleveland rape coverage, he elaborated on the Times' policy:
“We would mention race in a physical description only if it really is a detailed physical description that readers would learn something from ... But if the description is a ‘white man in his 40s’ or ‘a black man in a hoodie,’ then you’re not really providing any useful information and it could be sort of boiler plate.”
When I originally asked him if the Times follow-up would include the racial tensions that have played out between blacks and Hispanics since the crime, he said it would make sense to address it. "It may be that race has nothing directly to do with the initial events, but it seems clear that race does factor into the reaction within the community."
So why weren't these racial tensions addressed in the follow-up? Corbett said it came down to a change in focus. "The new information shifted the focus of the story somewhat away [from] the community reaction," he said. "The angry community meeting and the issue of race had been reported widely elsewhere, and weren't central to this story."
Still, there are likely some readers who haven’t followed the news about the racial tensions. Their familiarity with other coverage could affect their understanding of, and reaction to, the Times’ new story.
If the Times, like other news organizations, had addressed the racial tensions, then it would have made sense for the story to include both the ethnicity of the victim and the race of the suspects. But why mention just the victim's race or ethnicity? And how might the inclusion of the victim's ethnicity perpetuate stereotypes or affect readers' perception of her and her family?
There are additional ways the Times story raises more questions than it answered. Take this scene:
"The small house where the girl lived is on a dusty road on the outskirts of town, about 10 miles from Precinct 20. There were chickens in the yard and a trampoline out front, where her father sometimes slept during the afternoons. She lived there with her parents, two older sisters who were in high school and a younger brother."
As a reader, you wonder why the father sometimes slept on the trampoline. It's such an interesting detail, and yet it's not explained. There's value in offering details and setting a scene for readers. But when details aren’t explained, they could confuse readers rather than offer clarity.
Unexplained details can also lead to assumptions and unanswered questions: Was the father sleeping on the trampoline because he had back problems, as the story noted? We don’t know.
Deciding what context is relevant
The New York Times was criticized, in part, because its initial story included comments from a segment of the community that appeared supportive of the accused and accusatory toward the victim.
Those community members spoke this way about the victim:
“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?’ "
Today’s follow-up story, in contrast, appeared to take the perspective of the victim and her family. It reads:
"The father said he had been worried about his daughter’s safety for months before the assaults. She had been sneaking out of the house two or three nights a week, he said, climbing out a bedroom window. Some nights she would come home as late as 11 p.m. or midnight, saying she had visited girlfriends. He said he and his wife had scolded her almost daily."
Phrases like “sneaking out of the house” and “slipped out without permission“ and “scolded her almost daily” portray a girl who circumvents vigilant parents. Some readers may find in those phrases a lack of accountability for either the young girl or her parents — just as others questioned how the young, accused men could be missing, unnoticed, during Thanksgiving.
Similarly, the initial story used “have sex with” as a euphemism for the alleged rape, while the follow-up was more precise in labeling what happened, and who described it that way.
In Tuesday's story, the reporters carefully distinguish between language used by the young girl — who describes “having sex” with the young men — and the Times’ own language, which consistently refers to an assault, attack or rape. For example:
"The affidavits said the girl told investigators that she then 'engaged in sexual intercourse and oral sex' with several of the men present, among them Jared G. McPherson, 18, a high school basketball player, and Jared L. Cruse, also 18, who has since been charged with robbing a grocery store in the next county.
"During the sexual assault, the girl said, she heard Mr. McGowen call someone on the phone and invite him to the house to have sex with her, the affidavits said. Four more men whom she did not know arrived.
"The assault was interrupted when Timothy Ellis’s aunt arrived at the house, the affidavits said, and the men took the girl out a back window to a squalid abandoned trailer a block away, where the sexual attack continued. Her underwear was left behind."
Notice how the story stays very close to attributed language in this report. “Engaged in sexual intercourse” is in quotation marks because it comes from the affidavit; “have sex with her” is also attributed to the girl’s affidavit. This language does not convey the beliefs of the reporters, as it appeared to in the first story. It simply reflects the testimony provided.
What balance really means
Given the limitations of its original, one-sided story, the Times had a dilemma..
Brisbane suggested one way to address the imbalance; he said the follow-up should “take care to interview mental health and legal experts who can provide context to a story about a vicious sex crime against a young girl.”
Instead, the Times followed a traditional narrative arc in covering crime: First, tell one side of the story, and then tell the other. Often, we hear the victim's side first, as told by police; then we hear the suspects' side, as told by lawyers, family or others. In this case, the order was reversed.
But alternating, incomplete accounts do not create balance. At best, they allow readers who follow the coverage closely to form a more comprehensive picture of what happened.
The truth is not somewhere in the middle for each of us to discern independently. It is in the community whose story has been explored but remains half-told. Journalism’s job is to tell this community’s story fully.
“Journalism is a form of cartography,” write Tom Rosenstiel and Bill Kovach. “It creates a map for citizens to navigate society. Inflating events for sensation, neglecting others, stereotyping or being disproportionately negative all make a less reliable map.”
This community needs that map. We all do. And I hope The New York Times will continue to mark its boundaries.
Editor's note: Mallary Tenore and Julie Moos collaborated on this story. Tenore interviewed Corbett and wrote the first two sections; Moos wrote the last two sections.