Criticism over CNN coverage of Steubenville rape verdict also highlights journalism's struggle to cover sexual assault and juveniles
It’s something every cub producer learns in their first days on the job: TV news is often as much about channeling emotion as it is reporting facts.
That seemed to be the problem Sunday, when CNN got caught up in the emotion of seeing two teenagers convicted of rape in a widely-watched Steubenville, Ohio case; an international story, in part, thanks to photos and footage of the victim circulated on social media.
Unfortunately, reporter Poppy Harlow and anchor Candy Crowley’s reaction to the initial verdict included lots of sympathy for the convicted rapists, who were football stars in the town, with little mention of the victim. Condemnation on Twitter quickly followed, while two different pettitions on Change.org calling for an apology from CNN have drawn more than 196,000 signatures each.
While accusing Harlow and Crowley of being apologists for rapists seems extreme, the long minutes CNN spent telling the rapists' story did reveal why so much journalism goes wrong when it focuses on rape, juveniles and other serious crimes.
I first had this thought back in January, when the Today show interviewed a couple who had once served as guardians for one of the teen boys charged with raping a 16-year-old girl while she was intoxicated and unconscious, as pictures and video footage were taken which were later distributed over social media.
Because of the way modern journalists cover rape and sex crimes involving juveniles, the victim’s name is usually withheld from stories. In the case of juveniles, often parents and close relatives aren’t identified either, to make it tougher for others to connect the dots and deduce who the victim might be. (that didn't keep some news outlets from airing her name when one defendant uttered it during an apology.)
But particularly in the Steubenville case, those practices also removed the victim from all but the most fleeting presence in stories. While people who stood behind the accused rapists spoke freely to TV cameras and journalists, the victim was a girl with a blurred-out face in a photo which showed her being carried across a party.
And in modern media, if you don’t speak up and define yourself, its hard to exist in the world of the news story.
For me, CNN’s fault in its early coverage of the verdict was failing to keep that idea in mind, reminding viewers regularly that there was a victim who was not immortalized in news footage or public statements.
It’s worth noting that the victim’s mother did eventually speak to CNN and others have observed how emotional the courtroom scene was during the verdict, including the victim's lawyer.
But Anderson Cooper Monday night seemed to sum up the sort of perspective-setting required on his 8 p.m. CNN show -- admittedly after the channel had been lambasted publicly for its coverage -- showing video of one convicted teen breaking down into tears before noting those same youths first denied committing a crime. One of the youths, Ma’lik Richmond, tearfully admitted in court that his actions ruined a young girl’s life.
Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute suggests critics instead focus on journalists who got the story right. But I also think unless journalists learn from the mistakes made, they're just going to make them again.
It’s a tough request for television; requiring it to keep the emotion of a breaking news event in perspective. But it’s the only way to preserve the journalism part of the process – providing proper context along with the facts.