In Cleveland, Texas, 18 young men and boys have been charged with participating in the gang rape of an 11-year-old girl in an abandoned trailer home. As if the event weren't awful enough, the papers reporting the incident aren't exactly being, oh, say, fair in their reportage.
Update: The paper has responded, but they could still use some pointers.
In December, police learned of the assault when an elementary school student told a teacher about a cellphone video featuring one of her classmates. Authorities say that on November 28, the girl was offered a ride by a 19-year-old who took her to his house, then ordered her to take her clothes off, saying she's be beaten if she didn't. She was raped by several men and boys, then moved to the trailer where more assaults occurred as the attackers took cellphone videos and photographs.
The New York Times published a story today about how the case has torn apart the town, and the paper chooses to focus on the plight of the accused men. The author says the town is wondering "how could their young men have been drawn into such an act?" as if they were tricked into gang raping a child. Then there's this quote:
"It's just destroyed our community," said Sheila Harrison, 48, a hospital worker who says she knows several of the defendants. "These boys have to live with this the rest of their lives."
Though, of course, the accused are innocent until proven guilty, it's hard to believe that anyone's first concern would be about how the men will live with what they did. It's even more incredible that the Times decided to include the quote in the story, but it doesn't end there. The article continues:
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?"
These are important details to include in the story! If the mother didn't keep an eye on her daughter and let her wear slutty clothing, clearly it's her fault that her 11-year-old was the victim of a horrifying sexual assault. Worse, the Times fails to offer any sort of quote or reflect any degree of reporting that would offer balance to the victim-blaming.
Sadly, the Times isn't the only paper looking blaming anyone but the attackers for the rape. Earlier this week in the Houston Chronicle, another resident, Kisha Williams, questioned the parents, saying, "Where were they when this girl was seen wandering at all hours with no supervision and pretending to be much older?" The Chronicle points out that other residents feel this response is inappropriate, then quotes Carter Williams as saying, "This is a praying time for the young men and the young girl ... Seems like everyone in this whole town needs some God in their life."
The paper also notes that the girl looked older than she was, and describes the girl's Facebook page:
...The 11-year-old tells whomever she befriends that she's aware people have probably heard about her, but she doesn't care what they think.
"If you dislike me, deal with it," she wrote.
Sometimes she comes across like a little girl, such as when she talks of her special talent for making "weird sound effects" and "running in circles" to overcome nervousness.
But she also makes flamboyant statements about drinking, smoking and sex. Yet her vulnerability pokes through the tough veneer as she tells of "being hurt many times," where she "settled for less" and "let people take advantage" and "walk all over" her. She vows to learn from her mistakes.
Describing the girl's statements about sex and drugs only serves to paint her as the type of girl who's "asking" to get raped. Publishing information like that would be wrong if the victim was an adult, and it's totally reprehensible in the case of a victim who "comes across like a little girl," because that's exactly what she is. Without any context or balanced reporting, details like this only aim to explain how something so horrible could have happened. Readers can relax, knowing that the answer to the question is simply that the victim was a "bad girl." A cautionary tale! Too bad the media glossed over reality: the only thing we need to know is that she's an 11-year-old girl, and there's absolutely no justification or rational explanation for a crime this heinous.
Update: The Times responds.
Vicious Assault Shakes Texas Town [NYT]
Girl's Sex Assault Rocks Cleveland [Houston Chronicle]
Image via Jose AS Reyes/Shutterstock.