The New York Times' Rape-Friendly Reporting

| Wed Mar. 9, 2011 2:25 PM EST

From today's New York Times:

The police investigation began shortly after Thanksgiving, when an elementary school student alerted a teacher to a lurid cellphone video that included one of her classmates.

The video led the police to an abandoned trailer, more evidence and, eventually, to a roundup over the last month of 18 young men and teenage boys on charges of participating in the gang rape of an 11-year-old girl in the abandoned trailer home, the authorities said.

This story from Cleveland, Texas, is beyond horrifying. Obviously. Unfortunately, further injustices have now been heaped on the victim (and the movement to end rape culture) by the article's writer and editor.

"Gang Rape of Schoolgirl, and Arrests, Shake Texas Town," the Times article covering the atrocities, is a collection of one perpetrator-excusing, victim-blaming insult after another. It starts right after the lede and some further information about the suspects, who include middle schoolers and a 27-year-old. Then:

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? [Italics mine.]

Hmm. My editors let me get away with passive voice, too, but in this case it seems inappropriate, as does the peculiar 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 allegedly do anything. They were coerced into it by some unnamed influence or entity.

But okay, maybe how 18 young men were allegedly drawn into gang-raping a child is truly the question on Clevelanders' minds. The article was written by a reporter, not a pundit, so perhaps it can't be helped that some of the reported content is wildly insensitive. For example:

"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."

You can't blame a reporter for reporting uncomfortable facts, like this evidence of a culture that places more responsibility on victims and has more sympathy for rapists. You can blame a reporter, though, for not using the tools available to him to provide a basic balance of information and opinions. A transition like this could follow that last quote: "But others have different concerns, like…" Now insert a quote from a person wondering what it's going to be like for the victim to have nightmares, post-traumatic stress, depression, possibly crippling intimacy issues for a very long time. Instead, the only other people quoted are saying things like this:

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?"

This is the point at which, as the writer's editor, I would send him an email. "Dear James," it would say. "Thanks for getting this in! I have some concerns that we've only got quotes from people who are worried about the suspects ('The arrests have left many wondering who will be taken into custody next') and think the girl was asking for it, especially since, even if she actually begged for it, the fact that she is 11 makes the incident stupendously reprehensible (not to mention still illegal). We don't want anyone wrongly thinking you are being lazy or thoughtless or misogynist! Please advise if literally no other kinds of quotes are available because every single person who lives in Cleveland, Texas, is a monster." 

It seems such a message never happened, because the story ends with the school district spokeswoman, whose primary concerns appear to be as screwed up as the rest of the community's.

The students who were arrested have not returned to school, and it is unclear if they ever will. Ms. Gatlin said the girl had been transferred to another district. "It's devastating, and it’s really tearing our community apart," she said. "I really wish that this could end in a better light."

You know what I really wish? After wishing that this had never happened, and didn't happen all the time? That major media organizations would stop sneakily, if unintentionally, promoting rape-friendliness. It doesn't help the cause of keeping our youth from getting drawn into such acts.