Fact checking some outrage over news coverage of the Steubenville case

As you probably know already, two high school football players in Steubenville, Ohio were found guilty of raping a teenage girl and sentenced today. I’ve been seeing a bunch of outrage on Twitter and Facebook directed at CNN’s coverage of the verdict, for example this image:

For those who can’t read what the image says, the left-hand side repeats the statement “Not one word about the victim” three times, and the right-hand side reads as follows (capitalization, grammar, etc. as in original):

I cannot imagine how emotional the sentencing must have been…a 16 year old, sobbing in court, regardess of what big football players they are, they still sound like 16 year olds. What is the lasting effect of two young being guilty in juvenile court of rape essentially?
- Candy Crowley CNN

incredibly difficult to watch these two young men who had such promising futures, star football players, very good students literally watched as they believed their life fell apart.
-Poppy Harlow CNN

There’s always that moment of just – lives are destroyed. But in terms of what happens now, the most severe thing with these young men is being labled as registered sex offenders. The label is now placed on them by Ohio law. That will haunt them for the rest of their lives. -Paul Callan CNN

When I saw this, I was pretty pissed off too, and considered getting in on the outrage… but then I decided to go check CNN’s coverage for myself. I typed “CNN Steubenville verdict” into YouTube, and found this:

Which didn’t match the “not one word about the victim” claim. Here’s what Callan says in the video (I’ve bolded the parts missing from the image above):

There’s always that moment of just – lives are destroyed. And lives have already been destroyed by the crime, and we got a chance to see that. But in terms of what happens now, the most severe thing with these young men is being labeled as registered sex offenders. The label is now placed on them by Ohio law. And by the way, the laws in most other states now require such a designation in the face of such a serious crime That will haunt them for the rest of their lives.

After Callan explained more about what being a registered sex offender means, Crowley said:

I wanna bring Poppy back in, because Poppy, there’s the 16 year old victim, her life never the same again, and I understand that you’ve been talking to some of the families involved.

To which Harlow replied:

Her life never the same again, absolutely Candy. The last thing she wanted to do was sit on that stand and testify. She didn’t even want to bring these charges, she said it was up to her parents. But I want to tell our viewers about a statement her mother just made, just made, in the court, after the sentencing. Her mother just said that she has pity on the two young boys that did this. She said “human compassion is not taught by teachers or coaches, it’s a God-given gift.” Saying that, “you displayed a lack of compassion, a lack of moral code.” Saying that “you were your own accuser throughout this, for post about this all over social media.” And she said takes pity on them. As far as her daughter, she said she will persevere, she will get through this.

So based on this clip, neither of the three ignored the victim. But evidently, the image was based on a somewhat different clip, as the quote from Harlow was no where to be found in the first clip I found on YouTube.

Googling the edited version of the quote from Callan literally (and I mean literally literally) yielded only two hits, both from Daily Kos. Following the links, it seems that all the quotes in the image I saw on Facebook came from a slightly earlier but overlapping clip from CNN’s coverage. But that clip doesn’t ignore the victim either. The very first words on the story out of Crowley’s mouth are:

I’m Candy Crowly in Washingon. Reliable Sources is just ahead. But first, a breaking story we’re following. Two star high school football players in Steubenville Ohio have been found guilty of raping a West Virginian teenager.

It looks like whoever made the image on Facebook was going entirely off of Daily Kos’ condensed version of the quotes, without bothering to check what CNN actually said.

Similarly misleading is this description of CNN’s coverage by Gawker:

It’s perfectly understandable, when reporting on a rape trial, to discuss the length and severity of the sentence; it is less understandable to discuss the end of two convicted rapists’ future athletic and academic careers as if it were somehow divorced from the laws of cause and effect. Their dreams and hopes were not crushed by an impersonal, inexorable legal system; Mays and Richmond raped a girl and have been sentenced accordingly. Had they not raped her, they would not be spending at least one year each in a juvenile detention facility.

It is unlikely that Candy Crowley and Poppy Harlow are committed rape apologists; more likely they simply wanted a showy, emotional angle at the close of a messy and sensationalized trial. Since the identity of the victim is protected, and the rapists obliged the camera crews by memorably breaking down and crying in court, they found an angle to match: extremely gifted young men were brought tragically low by… mumblemumblesomething.

That isn’t how rape trials ought to be discussed by professional journalists

As I’ve already shown, CNN was pretty fucking clear about what the boys were being sentenced for, contrary to what Gawker implies.

Now you can still argue that CNN’s emphasis was off. The nature of 24-hour news stations is that they tend to emphasize telling you what just happened five minutes ago while leaving out obviously relevant background and analysis. That’s one of the reasons I mainly only watch TV news by accident. But it isn’t a problem specific to coverage of rape cases.

Even even granting that CNN’s emphasis was somewhat off, my overall impression from watching the relevant clips is very different than what I initially got, just listening to people on Facebook and Twitter. The statement from the victim’s mother, in particular, gives CNN’s coverage a very different tone than you’d expect from all the outrage.

Similarly, I didn’t get the impression that Callan’s description of what it means to be on a sex offender registry was meant to lament the consequences for the perpetrators. In fact, he points out that the reason for the sex offender registry is that it was such a serious crime. Describing the exact consequences is arguably valuable. It says, “if you do this, the legal system will come down on you hard.” That’s a message worth sending (taking into account the caveat that not all victims get justice).

Though I wasn’t expecting to find this when I started looking into the story, it seems to confirm my previous worries about the role of outrage in the blogosphere.

ETA: As a matter of full disclosure, I have to confess that I’ve often clicked “share” on Facebook memes without first fact-checking them. I hereby resolve to stop doing that, especially in light of the bogus quote that’s been floating around attributed to the new Pope.

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