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From Big Dan’s to Steubenville: A Generation Later, Media Coverage of Rape Still Awful

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This past Sunday, 16-year-old Ma'lik Richmond and 17-year-old Trent Mays were found delinquent (the equivalent of guilty in juvenile court) of raping a 16-year-old girl in front of their friends at a series of parties in Steubenville, Ohio. Mays was also found delinquent on charges of the illegal use of a minor in nudity-oriented material for texting a picture he took of the victim while she was naked.

Almost exactly 30 years earlier, in March 1983, a woman was gang raped by at least four men—six were originally charged—in Big Dan’s Tavern in New Bedford, Massachusetts. The victim in the Big Dan’s attack was Cheryl Araujo, a 21-year-old mother of two who lived down the street from the tavern. (The 1988 film The Accused is loosely based on the incident.)

There are striking parallels between the two cases. And, notably, they illustrate how little the media’s coverage of rape cases has changed over the decades.

Reporters covering the Big Dan’s case openly struggled with responsible reporting issues, such as whether or not to name the victim and how to give context to victim-blaming quotes from community members.

Araujo was told in court that she had to “prove her innocence.” She was aggressively cross-examined and grilled about her drinking. “She was as much on trial as the defendants,” an advocate told the Associated Press.

In both the Big Dan’s and Steubenville cases, the public was shocked by the presence of bystanders who joined in, cheered, or did nothing to stop the attacks. That shock converged with anxiety over the role a new media format played in each case: As Columbia University journalism professor Helen Benedict noted in the landmark 1993 book, Virgin or Vamp: How the Press Covers Sex Crimes, the newfangled media in the Big Dan’s case was 24-hour cable news.

The Steubenville case, of course, was documented on and subsequently unfolded through social media: The assailants took photos of the victim looking unconscious. A friend shot, and later deleted, video of Mays assaulting the victim in a car. A blogger named Alexandra Goddard helped the case gain attention by chiseling away at it on her website. Loosely organized hacker group Anonymous posted a video of the attackers’ friend laughing hysterically about the assault, which galvanized outrage about the case. Crime scene investigators didn’t need the victim’s underwear, which went missing after the assault, to get a guilty verdict; they had the assailants’ smart phones.

Swap “social media” for “television” in Benedict’s assessment of the Big Dan’s case, and it could apply to Steubenville: “The all-pervasive presence of television contributed to making the media part of the story itself, which elicited its own set of reactions among the public," she wrote.

Benedict added that the Big Dan’s case “evolved into a blatant example of the way women are regarded once they become rape victims. And it put the press to an unusual test—a test of how to be fair in the light of violent feelings, extreme and opposing points of view, and vociferous criticism.”

Media outlets have been put to that same test of fairness while covering Steubenville. Many have failed in significant ways.

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