Why journalists are covering rapes differently in New Delhi & Steubenville

It’s not often that two stories about rape -- one in India and one here in the U.S. -- get so much attention at the same time. What’s striking about the simultaneous stories is how differently journalists are covering them.

The case in New Delhi involves a young woman who was raped so brutally that she died. The five men suspected of the rape now face charges of kidnapping, rape and murder. Just over the weekend, six men were arrested in India for another rape.

The rape in Steubenville, Ohio, involves two high school football players who allegedly sexually assaulted a 16-year-old girl for several hours. There are reports that she was raped anally and urinated on as other young men watched.

Differences in the coverage seem to revolve around journalists' handling of three main topics -- the victims, the suspects and the larger cultural and societal aspects of rape.

Portrayal of the victims

The media have given the young woman in the New Delhi case widespread attention. Her father has said his daughter, whose name he wants the world to know, "didn't do anything wrong." One of The Wall Street Journal’s most shared stories last week was titled: "New Delhi Attack: The Victim’s Story.” It details what her hopes and aspirations were, what she had accomplished at a young age, and how hard she worked to pay for her education.

By contrast, the coverage of the Steubenville woman has focused more on what happened to her as a victim and less on who she is as a person. This is somewhat understandable, given that her identity is being protected. But it's nonetheless striking how little we know about her. We know, as The New York Times reported, that "she attended a smaller, religion-based school, where she was an honor student and an athlete.” And we know that she was allegedly drunk the night she was raped, though it's unclear whether that information is relevant or an unintended way to blame the victim.

This confusion has been an ongoing problem in rape coverage. The language we use can assign blame, and so can our descriptions of victim's appearances. For instance, reporting that a rape victim was known to "dress provocatively" or "inappropriately for her age" could imply to some that she was culpable.

Part of the reason U.S. coverage may be more sympathetic toward the New Delhi girl is because of the distance, says The Washington Post's Melinda Henneberger.

“The closer to home a sex crime occurred, especially when the accused is someone well-known, or is literally cheered on in the case of local athletes, then the harder it is for a news outlet to cover it in a way that’s not reflexively protective of the accused,” she said via email. “For that reason, a woman brutally attacked in New Delhi is far easier to write about sympathetically than a woman in our community because there’s no defensiveness; that’s someone else’s terrible problem.”

Portrayal of the suspects

The coverage I’ve seen of the men allegedly involved in the New Delhi rape has been largely critical. This Wall Street Journal story, for instance, says two of the suspects have been described as “rowdy, heavy drinkers” who “used to drink while driving, before driving, and on the way home -- everywhere.”

Coverage of the suspects in the Steubenville case has been different. Last week, the “Today Show" interviewed the ex-guardians and the attorney of suspect Ma’lik Richmond. In the interview with Matt Lauer, Richmond's ex-guardians said they're supportive of him and portrayed him in a positive light. As they talked, childhood photos of Richmond flashed across the screen.

I watched the coverage and wondered: Who’s there to advocate for, and support, the young woman? Who’s there to give her a voice? Google searches have turned up one interview with the victim's mother, who told The New York Times: "It’s unreal, almost like we’re part of a TV show. It’s like a bad ‘CSI’ episode. What those boys did was disgusting, disgusting..."

It doesn’t help that the suspects are on Steubenville's local high school team, which has been heralded as “a bright spot” for the town's residents. BuzzFeed’s Katie Heaney wrote last week about what she calls “the glorified athlete suspect." An accuser's athletic achievements can serve as “a legitimate alibi absolving them of wrongdoing,” Heaney writes.

Whether or not suspected athletes have committed the crimes of which they are accused, the things they've accomplished in sports have nothing to do with it. If athletes suspected of rape are eventually found innocent, it won't (or, at least, shouldn't) be because they've done such a good job for their teams. Can a young man not be an excellent quarterback and a rapist all at once? 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.

We saw this glorification of athletes in the coverage of Notre Dame student Lizzy Seeberg, who committed suicide after accusing a football player of sexual assault in 2010. Henneberger wrote an extensive story about the incident, and recently wrote about her own experience with rape.

“It's no accident that … when the Chicago Tribune broke that story, the reaction of the Notre Dame community was (and is) to ’shoot the messenger’ by claiming that oh, those haters in Chicago have always been out to get us,” Henneberger said.

Lauren Wolfe, director of the Women's Media Center's Women Under Siege project, said  journalists covering the Steubenville case need to do deeper reporting.

"Our mainstream media is ignoring the bigger picture -- we've got talk show hosts sitting down with football parents and talking about the 'boys' and 'football culture' not daring to delve into what is behind this horrible, all-too-common crime."

Portrayal of the cultural & social aspects of the rapes

Coverage of the public's reaction to both rapes has also been noticeably different. The coverage of the New Delhi rape has raised important questions about gender inequality in India, where "25,000 to 100,000 women a year are killed over dowry disputes."

The New York Times reported on the country's antiquated definition of rape: "Compared to the much of the rest of the world, sections of India’s laws covering rape are inadequate and narrowly defined, critics say. And India’s way of delivering justice to rape victims is replete with loopholes, they say."

Indian women participate in a march to mourn the death of a gang rape victim in Hyderabad, India, Thursday, Jan. 3, 2013. (Mahesh Kumar A./AP)

Sameera Khan, journalist and co-author of “Why Loiter? Women & Risk on Mumbai Street,” said rape coverage in India has increased in recent years. But until the New Delhi rape, she viewed the coverage as uneven.

It is “often class-biased (that is if the rape survivor is middle-class it gets more media play than if she is working class or tribal, rural, etc.); intrusive and violative of the privacy of the survivor (sometimes even disclosing identifying details of the survivor which is banned by Indian law); and often takes on a moral stance ('what was she doing there so late?' or 'what was she wearing?'),” Khan said by email. “Sometimes this is done more subtly and sometimes quite crudely.” Usually, she said, police make moral judgements and the media simply echo what they say without questioning them.

Khan described the coverage of the Delhi gang rape, however, as being "unusually decent."

“I think this has been a result of the overwhelming sad, upset, angry response of ordinary people who came onto the streets in many parts of India and especially Delhi, where for days people literally occupied public space and said 'enough is enough, we want justice for her and all rape victims' ... the media caught on to the people's sentiment very fast and echoed it and have been fairly sensitive to the survivor,” Khan said.

“This is the first time we have seen such a sustained campaign both by ordinary people and the media against rape and for safety of women in public space.”

Wolfe, of the Women's Media Center, said she’s been struck by how “remarkable” the Indian media’s coverage of the rape has been.

“It reports every pinky finger lifted on this case and gives a lot of space to what needs to be done to move the country's terrible record of violence against women forward,” Wolfe said via email. “From what I can tell, this is unprecedented, as are the mass protests against violence against women.”

She thinks the U.S. media’s coverage of the Steubenville rape, meanwhile, is too focused on the town being “divided.”

“Why are we again seeing such heinous acts defended or dismissed, as we saw with Penn State? On one hand, I'm not faulting the media for giving that airtime because it actually does the service of revealing the terrible reality in this country that we don't take the violation of women seriously,” Wolfe said.

“But on the other, it's also true that there is such an entrenched culture of rape in the world -- including in the U.S. -- that the media has on blinders on how to discuss sexualized violence. How many more times can they refer to rape as 'sex'? They need to treat rape like they would any other crime, yet they don't.”

Part of the problem: rape is often an invisible crime, says Nick Kristof in a recent New York Times column.

Americans watched the events after the Delhi gang rape with a whiff of condescension at the barbarity there, but domestic violence and sex trafficking remain a vast problem across the United States.

One obstacle is that violence against women tends to be invisible and thus not a priority.

Rape isn't as black and white as some other crimes, so it's harder to cover. There are a lot of unresolved questions that journalists can't always answer, such as: What effect is rape having on the victim and what effect will it have on her life? How will it affect her future relationships? How will it affect her view of herself?

Journalists often focus on the accused. Will they be charged for the crime? If so, what will the charges be? Will they be found guilty or not guilty? Will they go to jail?

Wolfe said that "unlike in India, [U.S.] media is not talking about the 'why.' Why are there systems in place that allow rape to be committed over and over again in this country? Why are boys raised to think that rape with an unconscious woman can possibly be considered sex?"

Journalists covering the Steubenville and New Delhi rapes have an opportunity to raise these questions and seek answers. By doing so, they can help shed light on the seriousness of rape -- and ultimately tell more complete stories about it.

  • Mallary Jean Tenore

    As managing editor of The Poynter Institute’s website, Poynter.org, 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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