Making Sense of the Media
1:47 pm
Mon March 25, 2013

More Media Fallout in the Steubenville Rape Case

Credit CNN/Huffington Post

The media needs to do a better job of covering rape cases.

That's what the widely covered rape trial of two Steubenville, Ohio football players shows, according to Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute's "Sense Making Project."

The case came to light in social media when one of the boys posted pictures of the victim.

It was also debated on social media, with some  claiming the boys were being treated differently because they were star football players and others accusing internet commentators of trying and convicting them on the web.

After the boys were found guilty, another social media controversy erupted when CNN reporter Poppy Harlow did a live report in which she was accused of showing more sympathy for the convicted rapists than the rape victim.

"I've never experienced anything like it, Candy. It was incredibly emotional — incredibly difficult even for an outsider like me to watch what happened as these two young men that had such promising futures, star football players, very good students, literally watched as they believe their life fell apart."

There's now an online petition asking CNN to apologize for that report.

But, McBride said Harlow's report is understandable considering how differently journalism treats rape from other crime coverage.

"She doesn't have an image of of the victim," McBride explained.  "So I think it was completely natural of her -- in a live setting -- to react to what she saw, which was two boys watching their lives disappear in front of them."

But, McBride said that not knowing the identity of the rape victim isn't the only thing that distorts coverage of rape.

"The other problem is that rape is an absolute epidemic in our society, particularly rape among children and teenagers. Yet," she said, "we only cover it when we have a breaking news incident that is almost atypical... the very cases we choose to cover distort the issue."

McBride says the oversimplification of rape -- where all rapists are portrayed as monsters and all victims are portrayed as being destroyed -- actually takes attention away from the epidemic of rape in America.

"One-in-four girls and one-in-six boys will be victims of sexual assault by the time they reach age 18," said McBride. "That means there are many, many rapists living among us. And the fact is, for the most part, people who rape come off as completely normal... and, in fact, most girls and boys who are sexually assaulted put their lives back together."

When it comes to educating the public, McBride said journalism is falling short when it comes to rape coverage.

"On this particular issue of sexual assault on children we have done a really bad job."