Victim-Blaming Rhetoric or Just Good Ol’ Fashioned Reporting?

Got an email the other day from an HU college buddy asking me to sign a petition started by Change.org asking that I “Tell the New York Times to issue a published apology for their coverage of this incident and publish an editorial from a victim’s rights expert on how victim blaming in the media contributes to the prevalence of sexual assault.”

But before signing anything, I wanted to read the article myself and this is what stood out to me.

What was said of the alleged rapists fits succinctly in one paragraph:

Five suspects are students at Cleveland High School, including two members of the basketball team. Another is the 21-year-old son of a school board member. A few of the others have criminal records, from selling drugs to robbery and, in one case, manslaughter. The suspects range in age from middle schoolers to a 27-year-old.

And this is what was said/reported of the victim:

“It’s just destroyed our community,” said Sheila Harrison, 48, a hospital worker who says she knows several of the defendants. “These boys have to live with this the rest of their lives.”

{snip}

Residents in the neighborhood where the abandoned trailer stands — known as the Quarters — said the victim had been visiting various friends there for months. 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?”

And although the NYT stands by the article, saying that the reactions of the assault are not their own just what they found in their reporting this line of unquoted material was enough to furrow my brow:

The case has rocked this East Texas community to its core and left many residents in the working-class neighborhood where the attack took place with unanswered questions. Among them is, if the allegations are proved, how could their young men have been drawn into such an act?

Just those words “drawn in…” (emphasis clearly mine) coupled with “their young men” seem dipped in patriarchal rapist-sympathetic sentiment to me. As if these young men were lured in, or made a wrong turn somewhere and oops committed a heinous crime to a girl of 11.

When New York Times spokesperson Danielle Rhoades stresses that “As for residents’ references to the accused having to ‘live with this for the rest of their lives,’ those are views we found in our reporting. They are not our reporter’s reactions” I don’t buy it.

The NYT is known for its in-depth reporting but when you report on the description on the girl’s style of dress and comings and goings are you implicitly saying that it has a significant role in the rape that ensues? Methinks yes.

What about you?

Since we are on the topic of ethics and sexual violence, *should the names of rape victims ever be published? There is the question of privacy but we do not afford that same privilege to those who have allegations and charges (not convictions). By continuing the practice of name-omission are we also applying a stigma of shame to victims, implicitly instructing them that although they are not a criminal it is a crime they should keep to themselves?

*question is general, not specific to this case which involved a minor.

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Naima

Naima "Nai" Ramos-Chapman is the Associate Editor at Campus Progress, a dancer with Taurus Broadhurst Dance in D.C., and an aspiring visual artist (she doodles). Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @Naimaramchap.

3 comments to Victim-Blaming Rhetoric or Just Good Ol’ Fashioned Reporting?

  • Shauna

    This story was handled terribly. why convey any sympathy at all to the accused? When you hear that a bank got robbed, you don’t ask “How did the young man who robbed the bank get drawn into this crime?” And to flip it, as a commenter on Jezabel said, you don’t hear people talking about the bank “standing around ADVERTISING that it had money inside. It was totally asking for it.”

    Regarding the naming of the victime, I don’t think names should be released. In the current rape-apologist climate, I’m positive the victim would receive more threats and harassment than the perpetrator.

  • lsn

    We had an abbreviated version of the article in my local newspaper – the comments about being “drawn in” were there; the comments about the girl’s dress, hanging out with boys and her mother weren’t. Even so, the “drawn in” comment stood out to me – would they be asking the same question if these boys had bashed the crap out of another boy? Or, as above, robbed a bank or a petrol station? Or committed just about any other act of violence?

    And incidentally, where are the published comments asking how the parents of these particular boys could possibly have parented so badly that their sons think gang rape is OK? Pillars of the community they may be, but they obviously fell down pretty badly on that one.

    As to the “these boys have to live with this for the rest of their lives” – yes, true, but so does the victim, dammit. (And yes, that was the comment that made the report in my local paper that irritated me the most.) I mean really, would they have “had to live with it” if they hadn’t been charged? No, but the girl still would have, and would probably have been subject to harrassment as people “in the know” regarded her as an easy target.

    I personally think that the comments about the girl’s dress, behaviour and about her mother’s parenting skills were unnecessary to include. By virtue of being printed they assume some weight – even though they’re clearly opinion, they’re still in black and white. I agree with the above commenter that including sympathy for those charged was a bit odd as well, given the nature of the crime. I do hope this opens up a debate within that paper (and that community) about the whole issue of victim blaming though.

    As to the publishing of rape victim’s names…I’m in two minds. The low numbers of rapes being reported would probably drop further with the publication of the victim’s name and the potential for harrassment of the victim – the example I’m thinking of here is a current furore involving a minor and a sporting club, in which the minor has not been named for legal reasons, but whose name is still widely known among both the media pack and the wider Melbourne public and is apparently all over the internet (particularly the sporting supporter websites). (I don’t know it, but I also choose not to.) There is some support here for not publishing the accused’s name until after they are convicted – something that has come about after the media went crazy over several sports players being charged, some of whom were convicted and some of whom weren’t.

    On the other hand the publication of the victim’s name could help remove the stigma attached… but I’m not sure that I’d want to be the guinea pig who it was done to in the early days, which makes me wary of asking other women (and men) to do it. Either way I’d prefer it to be suppressed until post-conviction at least.

  • Naima

    A thorough article on NYT and Houston Chronicle’s distinct reporting on the rape and how race too, was a factor.

    http://colorlines.com/archives/2011/03/cleveland_texas_gang_rape_horror.html

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