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Is CNN Soft on Rapists? Steubenville Coverage Sparks Debate

Social media, a lead player in this drama, has left the victim and the perpetrators – and in this case the reporter — exposed

A chorus of online critics has taken aim at CNN for its allegedly sympathetic coverage of two convicted rapists in Steubenville, Ohio. But the controversy raises a broader question over how to cover teenage rapists and a teenage victim in the age of social media.

By Tuesday afternoon, a petition demanding that CNN apologize for its coverage of the rape conviction of Steubenville football stars Ma'Lik Richmond, 16, and Trent Mays, 17, had mushroomed to 200,000 signatories.

“Your coverage of the … verdict Sunday morning was a complete disgrace and a breach of journalistic ethics,” the petition, launched by Gabriel Garcia of Knoxville, Tenn., at Change.org reads. “I request that you apologize on-air, several times over the course of the next week, at the start of every hour.”

ReutersCNN had no official comment, except to note privately that viral petitions sometimes have a life of their own and start “feeding on itself” whether or not the issue is valid.

Meanwhile two insiders at CNN exclusively told TheWrap that the controversy had hit reporter Poppy Harlow, covering the events in Steubenville, particularly hard.

“Poppy is taking this extremely personally as a woman,” said one executive. “She’s outraged that someone would think she’d do such a thing” as slant her coverage toward rapists. “It’s gotten so out of control.”

Also read: What the Media Says About Coverage of the Steubenville Rape Case

The outrage stemmed from Harlow standing outside the courtroom after the verdicts were read on Sunday, visibly moved by watching the young men collapse at the news of conviction. “I’ve never experienced anything like it,” she said on the air. “It’s incredibly emotional, even for an outsider like me. These two young men, with promising futures, star football players, A students, literally watched as their lives fell apart.”

Rather than balancing Harlow’s report, anchor Candy Crowley asked an expert about the rape conviction’s “lasting effect on two young men.” As critics pointed out, Crowley did not spare a word for the unnamed and unseen victim or the lasting effect on her.  

Indeed, Crowley may regret qualifying the crime as “essentially rape.”

Other CNN coverage did focus on the 16-year-old victim, who testified that she was drunk. She has not spoken out and her name has been omitted from most reports.

Some of the most virulent critics taking aim at the network were on the far side of the political spectrum, including a blogger on thinkprogress.org who said that “By emphasizing the boys’ good grades and bright futures, as well as by describing the victim as ‘drunk’ without clarifying that the defendants were also drinking, many mainstream media outlets became active participants in furthering victim-blaming rape culture.”

Meanwhile Glenn Beck’s The Blaze highlighted the criticism under the headline: “Sympathizing With Rapists? See What CNN Said About the Steubenville Rapists That Has It Taking Major Heat.”

The CNN executive pointed out that the rape victim’s mother chose to talk exclusively to Harlow on Monday, which she presumably would not have done if she felt the earlier reporting was skewed.

But Al Tompkins, senior faculty for broadcast and online at The Poynter Institute for Media, said CNN should apologize.

“It would have been appropriate to remember that there’s a victim, and it doesn’t make them smaller in any way to acknowledge that,” he told TheWrap. “It’s good to give feedback, and it’s a valid point.”

In the age of social media, a two-minute news piece on CNN can be replayed and scrutinized endlessly — and debated ad nauseum.  And what was a small-town scandal last year has been elevated to a national drama gone viral in an intimate way not possible before the advent of the internet. 

Technology has punctured all this, leaving the victims and the perpetrators — and in this case the reporter — exposed.

On the night of the rape, Aug. 14,  2012, photos and videos of the victim were taken by a third teenage boy. The material was posted to Instagram and YouTube. The photos and videos went viral, enough so that the victim’s mother heard of the rape via word of mouth.

On YouTube, a 12-minute video of a drunken Steubenville teenager repeatedly mocking the rape and referring to the victim as “dead,” has been viewed on YouTube more than 1 million times.

Two girls were arrested this week in Steubenville for harassing the victim on social media, sending out tweets threatening to kill her for hurting their families.

The case is complicated by the youth of the defendants, the social setting of the crime and the viral nature of the aftermath.

Richmond and Mays were two star football players from Steubenville, Ohio. Richmond is from a rough neighborhood in Steubenville, who grew up with an absentee father. The second teen, Mays, has a football coach father and an impressive academic record.

The teens digitally penetrated the 16-year-old West Virginia girl, twice, which in Ohio constitutes rape. The first instance of penetration occurred in a vehicle, where the victim was barely conscious, but was allegedly kissing Mays’ neck while he exposed her breasts to the camera. The second penetration took place inside the home of the teen behind the camera.

Tompkins said the controversy over CNN’s coverage fit the tone of the tragedy. “It’s a capstone to this entire case,” he said. “So much of what happened, happened with no thought to the victim.”

He added: “Part of what we should be learning as media is we’re no longer in the we’ll talk you listen business. That’s not what happens now. There was a time. But those things are long, long gone. Now the conversation is constant. Every network is constantly asking for feedback. We shouldn’t be surprised when we get it.”

Rebecca Rosenberg contributed to this report