The New York Times's public editor has responded to widespread complaints about the paper's coverage of a child being gang raped in Texas. The gist: "My assessment is that the outrage is understandable. The story dealt with a hideous crime but addressed concerns about the ruined lives of the perpetrators without acknowledging the obvious: concern for the victim."
There's no response from the reporter or explanation of how the story came about, but there's this:
Philip Corbett, standards editor for The Times, told me earlier today that the story focused on the reaction of community residents and that there was no intent to blame the victim. He added, "I do think in retrospect we could have done more to prove more context to make that clear."
Indeed. Public editor Arthur Brisbane points out that the AP managed to find someone to quote who said, "She's 11 years old. It shouldn't have happened. That's a child. Somebody should have said, ‘What we are doing is wrong.'" He also says the Times is working on a followup story that will presumably take into account the fact that an eleven-year-old can't consent to sex, and that it doesn't matter what a rape victim was wearing.
Clearly, news organizations are still badly in need of a critical lens on how to cover sex crimes. We still don't know why the Times reported the story the way they did — the spokesperson who is the only other official voice to weigh in was remarkably unilluminating — but for now let's chalk it up to obliviousness, indifference, or both. Let's go back to that statement for a moment.
"Neighbors' comments about the girl, which we reported in the story, seemed to reflect concern about what they saw as a lack of supervision that may have left her at risk...
As for residents' references to the accused having to "live with this for the rest of their lives," those are views we found in our reporting. They are not our reporter's reactions, but the reactions of disbelief by townspeople over the news of a mass assault on a defenseless 11-year-old.
Intentionally or otherwise, this elides the fact that people look to The New York Times to exercise news judgment rather than print the views of people verbatim. Just contrast it with this subsequent story in the AP, starting with the headline: "Some in Texas town blaming young girl in assault." Sounds like someone was thinking critically about how simply regurgitating the views of townspeople that this had something to do with a lack of supervision, rather than a group of men raping a child, could perpetuate that narrative. In other words, the quest to remain "balanced" about something like the gang rape of a child actually resulted in very clearly taking a side.
Similarly, this excellent piece about how much language matters in discussing such cases takes reporters to issue for using the phrase "had sex with" instead of "raped."
The language used by Fox News here is even more dangerous because it's like a new breed of euphemism hidden in plain sight. The language exists already. It's the language of the perpetrator-and his defense team. It's language that takes the point of view of the attacker—it was consensual; we had sex but I didn't rape her, man.
Another way that a reporter can implicitly stack the deck, intentionally or otherwise, is by the choice and level of detail about the victim. The Times spokeswoman didn't address the inclusion of details about the 11-year-old choice of dress or the fact that she allegedly acted older, but let's give the reporter the benefit of the doubt and say for now that he considered it relevant because it was in the public's right to know all of the dimensions of the case. Particularly once a grisly case becomes a national affair, it becomes a quest for reporters to ferret out the most unique and unreported details — The Houston Chronicle's publishing details of the victim's Facebook page, for example.
Presumably that was what was at play in December when a reporter for the Lamorinda Patch, an AOL-owned local news site, published details about a fourteen-year-old girl's molestation by her teacher that apparently made her easily identifiable by the community. The story ran in December, but has inspired a new round of criticism after the judge in the molestation case closed the trial to the public, citing the piece. Here is the editors' defense — if you can find the content, let me know.
We felt it was important to note that no one has said Lamorinda Patch got its facts wrong in the story, which was based on a public document obtained from Contra Costa County Superior Court. In fact, Lamorinda Patch avoided using information that was not redacted by police that would have made identification of the victim possible.
Lamorinda Patch disagrees with the assertion that its reporting of a high-profile case is justification for closing that case to public scrutiny. Doing so undermines public confidence in our judicial system. Patch stands by our story and our decision to publish it.
The implication here is that the details are of public interest. And it is indeed in the public's interest to know that a middle school teacher was allegedly molesting a 14-year-old student over the course of a long period of time, and how it was that the system failed to detect it, and to monitor the fair adjudication of justice by the courts. (The age of consent in California is 18.) But the details in question actually center on the behavior of the girl, as well as the precise history of their interactions — the specifics of what grade she was in, when; the precise dynamics of their teacher-student and tutoring relationship; the specific sexual acts requested.
Also, the frequency of teacher-student texting. All of this is fodder for these types of comments, left unmoderated by the Lamorinda Patch:
Well actually I see two victims here. As an adult he is wrong but we have allowed children these days to get away with too much and not be accountable for their actions. Especially these little girls here in Lafayette and their mothers that allow them to wear tiny skirts (that the parents have purchased) with UGGS and shorts so small and tight that their dolls should be wearing them and then you say "oh well an adult should have better control over themselves and not look at them inappropriately."
Also this text messaging took place for the longest time and the parents finally take notice and had not the father questioned her, would she have come forward. Because prior to the July and August allegations, supposedly the text messages got inappropriate or personal in May or June, yet she agreed to private sessions later in July and August, hmmmm...... And during it all at no point (has it been said) did she tell her parents about her discomforts or hesitation about continuing these private sessions.
As we saw in the Cleveland case and beyond, outright victim blaming is practically ubiquitous when it comes to stories about sexual assault, but in a local community, thinking about an adult writing that about a child is even more heinous. It goes to what the Contra Costa Times, in its editorial on the topic, accurately refers to as a balancing of interests. It's not that principled vagueness would forestall victim-blaming, but the level of specificity helps guide and target the instinct to turn sexual assault back on the victim rather than the perpetrator. What public interest does that serve? Unless, of course, prurience and shallow rationalization count as public values.
Gang Rape Story Lacked Balance [NYT]
Our Coverage Of The Merrick Molestation Case [Patch]
Balancing Of Interests In Molestation Case [Contra Costa Times]
Related: Watch Your Language [Philadelphia Weekly]