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."
About the Author
Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.