Editor’s Pick
MARCH 11, 2011 8:20AM

Shame and Blame: the NYT's Coverage of Sexual Assault

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Last fall in Cleveland, TX, an eleven year old girl was brutally gang raped by eighteen young men.  An investigation began when the victim’s classmate told a teacher she had seen cellphone videos of the incident.  This week, the New York Times ran this article.


Since then, the blogosphere has been on fire.  At issue:  that the Times' story, “Vicious Assault Shakes Texas Town,” focuses on the aftermath in the community.  The boys’ lives that will never be the same.  The shock that a mother would leave her eleven-year-old unsupervised in a rough neighborhood.  That the victim “[wore] makeup and fashions more appropriate to a woman in her 20s.”


Sit with that for a moment.  


I don’t need to go into all of the reasons why mentioning what a child was wearing in a news story about a savage crime against her is reprehensible.  The victim blaming in this piece of “reporting” is so egregious it speaks for itself.  That the article focused more on how the “boys’” lives would be ruined (they ranged in age from middle schoolers to one 27-year-old) is bad enough on its own without my pointing out that nothing was said about the soul crushing death of a little girl’s childhood.


The New York Times’ response to the single letter to the editor they printed was, in short, that they were just reporting on what people said, reflecting the sentiments of those they interviewed accurately.  No one bothered to ask about the girl or her family, apparently.


To be fair, perhaps it doesn’t need to be said that a crime like this is monstrous or that the victim’s life was ruined.  That is more than understood.  Perhaps concern for the child’s privacy entered into the picture on some level.  But none of that excuses the fact that the article mentioned what she was wearing, and printed a quote from the child’s neighbor, “What was her mother thinking?”  Don’t those boys have mothers too?  


How a major news outlet could still be perpetuating a rape culture and defending it as “reporting,” truly defies imagination.  On a personal level, everything from the atrocity itself to the reporting to the Times’ defense, fills me with despair.  All this time, I have thought my teenaged daughters were living in a more enlightened time, or that at least by steering them to the most enlightened outlets for information, I would be protecting them from such myths.  I was wrong.






(For an excellent overview of this issue and an intelligent discussion about the language of sexual assault, please read this article by Roxane Gay at The Rumpus.)



Update:  Friday afternoon, the New York Times Public Editor posted this response.  (The public editor is a "readers' representative whose views are his own.)






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