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How not to represent rape: a report on a Texas travesty

A horrible crime happened in Cleveland, Texas.  A small town just northeast of Houston, it has a population of only 9,000 people, but that apparently includes up to 18 boys and men who were willing to take part in the gang rape of an eleven year old girl.  I imagine that the fallout from this event will be extensive and the investigation will take quite some time (it began just after Thanksgiving of last year), but the coverage in the New York Times has already come under fire because of how it chose to portray the story.  The offending passages:

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?“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.” . . .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?”

After reading the article my first reaction was “Wow, blame the victim much?”  And I apparently wasn’t alone–  Jezebel, Feministing, and Slate all have commentaries about how the article appears to focus on how the men and boys in this community are going to suffer from this incident and what could have prompted them to behave in this way, up to and including the suggestion that the victim is actually to blame for what happened to her. It is of course worth being concerned about whether people who actually weren’t involved in the crime might have been accused unjustly, but that specific worry isn’t actually mentioned in the body of the article.  Nor are the obvious attempts by members of the community to find some way to pin responsibility for the rape on this young girl labeled for what they are– victim-blaming.  Libby Copeland wonders

How can the New York Times fail to frame these quotes properly, to point out the stunning cultural misogyny that allows a brutal gang rape to be reinterpreted as vigilante moral policing? To report these details bare, without context, puts the misogyny squarely in the voice of the Times.  The kindest reading of what makes people blame the victims of rape is fear. We don’t want to imagine that what happened to this 11-year-old could happen to us or to our daughters, so we rationalize that it couldn’t, that we are not like her. But there’s much more going on. There’s deep-seated fear of and disgust for women and female sexuality. We don’t have the same reaction to a boy getting beat up as we do to a girl getting raped; we don’t tend to wonder what the boy did to provoke the bully.Here’s the thing: Any attempt to gain emotional distance on rape by transferring just a tiny portion, just one percent, of the blame onto the victim is an absolute moral wrong. It subtracts from the agency of the individual doing the raping. He is completely culpable. It is his crime — or, in the case of 18 young men and boys, it is theirs.

Amanda Marcotte blames this strange story-telling on journalistic objectivity gone too far:

I was under the impression that gang raping children is generally assumed to be such a horrific crime that reporters don’t have to strike a studied neutral pose, as you would with more overtly controversial issues, but apparently not. I feel strongly there’s a missed opportunity here.  I grew up in a rural Texas town on the other end of the state, and have more than a passing familiarity with how common it is for these kinds of communities to be shockingly tolerant of gang rape.  I don’t think it’s radical to point out that victim-blaming and assailant-sympathizing in a community sends permission signals to would-be rapists and makes crimes like this likelier to occur.  This could have been an opportunity to write a story examining the relationship between victim-blaming attitudes and the rapes themselves, much in the way that the murder of James Byrd in nearby Jasper in 1998 became an occasion to look at how racism still thrives in the South and created the context for hate crimes.

I agree, but such a story wouldn’t have been less objective– it would have been more objective, because objectivity isn’t simply dutifully recording people’s opinions and representing them in print.  It requires actually telling the facts of the story, including the fact that blaming the victim is what your sources are doing.  The story pays almost no attention at all to what the girl who was attacked in this way might have experienced or how difficult it must be to survive it physically and emotionally, but instead discusses how men might have been “drawn into” attacking her and how this ordeal must be affecting them.  I’m not sure it’s possible to be excessively neutral or objective, but it’s certainly possible to write an article that gives a definite impression of sympathy for the perpetrators, and that’s what happened here.  Marcotte is willing to give the article’s author, James McKinley, the benefit of the doubt and assume that he had no intention of lending credence to Cleveland residents who saw fit to speculate on how the girl provoked her own victimization.  I would like to do so as well, but if that’s the case I’m still mystified as to why the piece was written in this way and these specific quotes used without comment.  That isn’t a “studied neutral pose;” it’s just bad and biased reporting.

ETA: I missed this sardonic comment by Mac Mclelland at Mother Jones.  Money quote:

This is the point at which, as the writer’s editor, I would send him an email. “Dear James,” it would say. “Thanks for getting this in! I have some concerns that we’ve only got quotes from people who are worried about the suspects (‘The arrests have left many wondering who will be taken into custody next’) and think the girl was asking for it, especially since, even if she actually begged for it, the fact that she is 11 makes the incident stupendously reprehensible (not to mention still illegal). We don’t want anyone wrongly thinking you are being lazy or thoughtless or misogynist! Please advise if literally no other kinds of quotes are available because every single person who lives in Cleveland, Texas, is a monster.” 

1 Comment

Thank you for this, Gretchen. Your article here was linked to, a group page called "Vicious Assault Shakes Texas Town."

I'm asking all allies of the victim to beware getting drawn into the race-baiting around this case. People are saying the rapists did it because they are Black. And a few Black people are defending the rapists ONLY BECAUSE they are Black. I hope people will do this child some justice by standing against rape and all other oppressions — and remembering these criminals neither speak for nor reflect anyone but themselves.

Peace + Love.

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