Why railing against CNN for the Steubenville coverage is a waste of time

March 19, 2013
Category: Uncategorized

Momentum is building against CNN for clumsy things anchors said about the teenagers convicted of rape in Steubenville, Ohio.

It’s a misplaced anger that will do nothing but further confuse the public about issues of rape and sexual assault, particularly as the crime affects children and teenagers, who make up 44 percent of rape victims.

This discussion is not just about what has happened in the news and what has transpired in Steubenville; it’s an opportunity to have an honest conversation about the sexual assault of children and teenagers, and about misguided perceptions of healthy sexuality and the role of sports culture.

A petition on Change.org — which is asking CNN to apologize for mourning the tragic end of the boys’ promising football careers rather than acknowledging the impact of the rape on the girl — had more than 100,000 signatures as of Tuesday morning. Started by Gabriel Garcia of Knoxville, Tenn., the petition states:

That CNN decided to paint the tears of the convicted Steubenville rapists in a sympathetic light and say how their lives were ruined — while completely ignoring the fact that the rape victim’s life is the one whose life was ruined by these rapists’ actions — is disgusting and helps perpetuate a shameful culture in which young people never understand the concept of consent and in which rape victims are blamed and ostracized. Changing that culture must be done brick by brick, and it can start by heaping public shame on this major cable news network and forcing them to admit that they are wrong. Publicly.

In other media criticism, some are condemning Fox News for airing the victim’s name, even though others did it too. It’s hard to tell if this was an honest slip, but it really doesn’t matter.

For more than a decade, I’ve worked with rape survivors and organizations that advocate for survivors to improve media coverage of rape. I’ve led workshops, written model policies and counseled newsrooms through difficult, high-profile cases.

Here’s the problem: Rape and other forms of sexual assault are incredibly common. (For more information and statistics go here or here.) Researchers estimate that one in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually assaulted before age 18.

That means there are a lot of rapists out there. Sure, some rapists are responsible for multiple attacks and some are dangerous predators. But that many victims suggests profound confusion about rape on the part of both men and women, boys and girls.

Portraying all rapists as monsters and refusing them any sympathy creates a dynamic in which it’s impossible to acknowledge how many ordinary and common rapists live among us. (According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, “approximately 2/3 of assaults are committed by someone known to the victim,” and “38 percent of rapists are a friend or acquaintance.)

Likewise, concluding that all rape victims’ lives are ruined, that they are damaged goods condemned to a future of stigma and shame, ignores the fact that most rape survivors manage to put their lives together. This is not to minimize the trauma, because there is substantial harm. But almost every victim I’ve met lives a normal, productive life. They aren’t all ruined.

The Steubenville teenage victim, along with her family, have demonstrated the resilience of survivors. Her family members are a model for the rest of us; they didn’t insinuate that because she’d been drinking, she brought this on herself. Instead, they insisted on justice, even when they met resistance.

Rape is complicated. It is also common. We have to find ways to discuss the nuances of an epidemic that hurts so many children. Hyperbole undermines this goal. If all rapists are monsters, that means that mom’s boyfriend, or the coach, or star athlete can’t be a rapist. If all victims are destroyed, or worst yet, destined to victimize others, then healthy, intelligent men and women can’t be victims. And that’s just not true.

So don’t sign the petition demanding CNN apologize. Instead, draw attention to the good coverage.

ESPN’s Michael Smith and Jemele Hill devoted their entire His & Hers podcast this week to the topic. Hill discussed her own childhood assault as a 12-year-old and the fact that her mother was sexually assaulted as well. They talked about the responsibility parents have to educate their sons and daughters, about the pervasiveness of male entitlement in sports cultures and how difficult it is to achieve justice. Smith explains his sympathy for the convicted boys. Hill describes how she would counsel a teen girl to protect herself in a world that won’t respect her right to say no.

The National Sexual Violence Resource Center tried to draw attention to a study suggesting that more than half of teenagers would find it tough to intervene; 40 percent said they wouldn’t know what to do.

And blogger and former Steubenville resident Alexandria Goddard describes her role in uncovering the documentation of the assault on social media.

It’s not wrong to feel sympathy for two boys crying over their ruined lives. Because of the perceived stigma, we don’t name the victim or see her image. I’m not suggesting that we change that, until victims voluntarily ask us to. But we in the media have to do more to put a face on the victims of childhood rape. We need to find ways to tell their stories, the way David Holthouse did in his moving first-person stories for Westward and This American Life.

Railing against missteps or an imbalance in coverage makes us less likely to take up powerful stories that will change the way we as a society understand the extent of the rape problem and the power we have to change it.


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