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How not to report on rape allegations

Earlier this week, the New York Times published an article by James C. McKinley Jr. that was, in the opinion of many readers (including me), a textbook example of how not to report on rape. Here are the basics, from the not-objectionable part of the article, headined "Vicious Assault Shakes Texas Town":

The police investigation began shortly after Thanksgiving, when an elementary school student alerted a teacher to a lurid cellphone video that included one of her classmates. The video led the police to an abandoned trailer, more evidence and, eventually, to a roundup over the last month of 18 young men and teenage boys on charges of participating in the gang rape of an 11-year-old girl in the abandoned trailer home, the authorities said.

Horrible. So horrible, perhaps, that it goes without saying. But the trouble has to do with what the article did say. Here's where the problems start, at the end of the next paragraph:

The suspects range in age from middle schoolers to a 27-year-old.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?

"Drawn into"? McKinley's take on the story suggests that the residents of this town in Texas are focused entirely on the plight of the alleged rapists. The only sources who mention the victim -- who is, again, eleven years old -- insinuate that she was not-so-innocent:

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?

If anyone questioned the parenting of the boys and men who allegedly raped this child, and taped the assault, and passed the video around to all their friends, McKinley didn't write it down.Mac McClelland of Mother Jones, one of many who reacted with dismay and outrage after this was published, did a particularly good job summarizing what's wrong with the article. Even extending every benefit of the doubt to the author and his editors, it's very hard to understand how it got published as-is. Yesterday the NYT's public editor, Arthur S. Brisbane, issued a muted rebuke: "Gang Rape Story Lacked Balance." But is a lack of "balance" really the problem? Brisbane points to the AP's reporting on the same story as an example of how it might have been covered more "deftly." In the AP article, we do hear from at least one person who condemns the assault, full stop. But we also get this:

Residents who live nearby told The Associated Press this week that they had seen the girl, dressed provocatively and in makeup, hanging out near the area both before and after Nov. 28. Some in the town expressed doubts about the case, even suggesting authorities should consider culpability on the part of the girl."Maturity or not I'm pretty sure she knew what she was doing," Robin Smith, 24, a cashier in Cleveland, said as she shopped this week.

Is "she was asking for it" a viewpoint that ought to be included in a report like this -- even if it's "balanced" by more compassionate reactions? If these were reports on a trial, and if the defense was attempting to argue that the girl had consented, then the reporter would be obliged to say so. But if it's just a "locals react" roundup, might you not be justified in leaving out the more insensitive reactions? I'm not sure my appreciation of the crime is enhanced by knowing that some lady in a store is "pretty sure" the eleven-year-old "knew what she was doing." But say this is truly an accurate portrait of the local response -- in that case, perhaps the reporter should call attention to that alarming fact in his article? (By the way, the Houston Chronicle reports that locals are incensed by the portrait of their community's reaction to the crime. Even the Chronicle's initial report, however, included some uncomfortable victim-blaming quotes.) I find myself in agreement with "JustMe," who wrote this comment on Brisbane's analysis:

The problem, I think, was with the headline writers, who should have headlined the story, "Troubling Phenomenon of Texas Town Residents who Sympathize with Rapists."

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One other thought. It seems to me quite possible that rather than "blaming" the victim for inappropriate behavior (dressing and acting older than her age), it may very well be that her behavior was at least partially the result of abuse or of the "grooming process" mentioned in my quote above from the woman at the Child Advocacy Center. Age-inappropriate behavior on the part of children is one of the warning signals that abuse is taking place.

Of course rape is a terrible crime, and no one here is making excuses for those boys and men. But it is also true that some men and boys can be seduced rather easily, and any woman or girl who doesn't admit that is in denial. A mother who lets her child run around dressed like a prostitute has failed the child because she is allowing dangerous behavior. No, it's not fair, but that doesn't stop it from being dangerous.

Ann, David, etc.: the point of this post is that the people quoted in the NYT story and other news accounts were blaming the victim and were making excuses for her attackers. Those comments have been received in the context of a longstanding social failure to deal forthrightly with rape as violent crime, not a gray area of "seduction" and mixed messages. This is especially troubling when the victim is an eleven-year-old child who cannot under any circumstances legally consent to sex. I don't think anyone disputes that parental supervision is a good thing for children to have. But I don't see how an extended discussion of how girls should be brought up to dress and act is helpful here.

Molly,I was responding to Radical Catholic Mom, who said, "It makes me sick to hear this crap." I take her to mean the message of all but a few except Gerelyn and herself. We all agree that the Times story was flawed and that the reaction of some in the town who really are trying to blame the victim is reprehensible. But the thread has gone beyond a discussion of the Times story to people saying women should be able to walk down the street naked without being raped. I think the point that some of us are trying to make is that while that should be true, in the real world there are behaviors that put women, and particularly children, at risk. It is an important point, and I fail to understand why some participating in this thread seem to be outraged by it.

I don't think anybody disagrees that children need to be protected from harmful situations they lack the maturity to evaluate for themselves. I'd say the emotional response you're having trouble understanding has to do with the context in which you think it's important to make that point. A great deal of damage has been done, and continues to be done, by people who want to talk about rape in terms of "seduction" or conclude that this child's abuse happened "because" of how she was dressed. That is a much more important thing to understand and emphasize in this situation, it seems to me, because it's still oddly controversial. It should be obvious to everyone, but it's not. Whereas the fact that kids need supervision is far less controversial. So, however good your intentions, when the subject is a gang rape of a child that has been attributed to her manner of dress, it's pretty hard to respond with "Yes, but consider the circumstances" without sounding like you want to contest the fact that rape is a crime and should be treated like any other violent crime. We're all agreed that kids need good parenting. If we're also all agreed that "rape happens, so dress appropriately" is not an adequate social response, then let's just leave it at that.

Exactly, Mollie! Thank you! There will always be vulnerable children in this world and it is NOT their fault if they are raped. EVER! I think the confusion comes in because people assume rape is about sex. It is not. It is about power and control. And this Hispanic girl, was being put in her place by her community. You can hear it in the tone. So Anne sexual assault is NEVER seduction and it is repulsive to suggest it. David hit the nail on the head that her pre-assault behavior is classic example of a cry for help. Classic. Don't blame her. Let's shift this discussion to the 18 boys and men who raped her over a period of time.

Radical Mom ==What David said.

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