Several blogs have erupted in anger over the story of an 11-year-old girl who was gang raped in Texas. This girl's story is appalling on its own. But the focus of bloggers' disgust and frustration has been directed more towards the media coverage of the rape--The New York Times and The Houston Chronicle, in particular, are being called out for only including details and quotes that seem to blame the victim and solicit sympathy for the rapists.
The New York Times reported yesterday on a police investigation into the gang rape of an 11-year-old girl by 18 young men and boys in Cleveland, Texas. Reporter James McKinley Jr. described the incident, in which the girl was lured into one 19-year-old boy's car and subsequently raped by that boy and 17 others in a house and then an abandoned trailer. The assault was video taped on several of the attackers' cell phones and came to light when the videos surfaced last November.
After some background, McKinley homes in on the community's reaction to this crime, writing, "the case has rocked this East Texas community to its core and left many residents in the working-class neighborhood where the attack took place with unanswered questions. Among them is, if the allegations are proved, how could their young men have been drawn into such an act?" This question was what initially grabbed bloggers' attention. Mother Jones's Mac McClelland takes a look at the words "have been drawn into" and pulls it apart:
Hmm. My editors let me get away with passive voice, too, but in this case it seems inappropriate, as does the particular verb choice, which gives the suspects a little bit of a pass. If the allegations are proved, then the young men of Cleveland, Texas, committed these dreadful acts. However by the story's semantics, they didn't do anything. They were coerced into it by some unnamed influence or entity.
Then in Times article's next paragraph, one Cleveland resident is quoted saying, "It's just destroyed our community. These boys have to live with this the rest of their lives." This is probably true. But, as blog Cup O'Joel points out, "It would've been nice to have this story feature the voice of somebody saying, essentially, 'This girl will have to live with this the rest of her life.' ... Instead, we're treated to a version of adolescent slut-shaming."
The blogger is referring to the next part in the article, which talks about community members who had seen the victim hanging around the abandon trailers where the incident took place and recall that she "dressed older than her age, wearing makeup and fashions more appropriate to a woman in her 20s." One neighbor questioned where her mother was and why she was allowed to go to this notoriously dangerous area alone. Jezebel's Margaret Hartmann, outraged by the inclusion of these comments, writes:
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.
Hartmann points out that The Houston Chronicle also had some questionable coverage of the incident, which included details of the young girl's Facebook page, noting that while "sometimes she comes across like a little girl...she also makes flamboyant statements about drinking, smoking and sex." Hartmann argues that mentioning these details "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."
Jamelle Bouie at The American Prospect's Tapped blog adds that the coverage of this incident is indicative of our society's attitude towards sexual assault victims in general. "The most depressing thing about that New York Times story isn't the victim-blaming per se. Rather it's the extent to which it reveals the ubiquity and casual acceptance of victim-blaming," he explains. "Put another way, if our culture doesn't particularly care about the victims of sexual assault, then why should The New York Times?"