CNN's coverage of the Steubenville, Ohio, rape verdict involving a pair of high-school football players is being harshly criticized for its focus on the rapists rather than the 16-year-old victim.
"I've never experienced anything like it," CNN correspondent Poppy Harlow said live outside the juvenile court in Steubenville. "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."
One of the young men, Ma'lik Richmond, when that sentence came down, he collapsed. He collapsed in the arms of his attorney, Walter Madison. He said to me, "My life is over. No one is going to want me now." Very serious crime here. Both found guilty of raping this 16-year-old girl at a series of parties back in August, alcohol-fueled parties. Alcohol is a huge part in this.
Both Richmond and Trent Mays, the other defendant, stood up and apologized to the victim and her family. Harlow described the scene to Candy Crowley.
"I was sitting about three feet from Ma'lik when he gave that statement. It was very difficult to watch," Harlow said. "This was an incredibly emotional day. These two juveniles being carried out and they will be committed today, Candy."
Crowley then discussed the case with CNN legal contributor Paul Callan.
"You know, Paul, a 16 year old now just sobbing in court, regardless of what big football players they are, still sound like 16 year olds," Crowley said. "The thing is, when you listen to it and you realize that they could stay until they're 21, they are going to get credit for time served. What's the lasting effect, though, on two young men being found guilty in juvenile court of rape, essentially?"
The most severe thing with these young men is being labeled as registered sex offenders. That label is now placed on them by Ohio law and, by the way, the laws in most other states now require such a designation in the face of such a serious crime. That will haunt them for the rest of their lives.
At the end of the segment, Crowley and Harlow discussed the victim.
CROWLEY: I want to bring Poppy back in—because, Poppy, there's—you know, the 16-year-old victim, her life, never the same, again. And I understand you have been talking to some of the families involved.
HARLOW: Her life never the same again. Absolutely, Candy. The last thing she wanted to do was sit on that stand and testify. She didn't want to bring these charges. She said it was up to her parents. But I want to tell our viewers about a statement that her mother just made, just made in the court after the sentencing. Her mother just said that she has pity on the two young boys that did this. She said human compassion is not taught by teachers or coaches. It's a God-given gift, saying that you displayed a lack of compassion, a lack of moral code, saying that you were your own accuser throughout this for posting about this all over social media. And she said she takes pity on them. As far as her daughter, she said she will persevere, she will get through this.
"One way to report on the outcome of a rape trial is to discuss the legal ramifications of the decision or the effect the proceedings may have on the life of the victim," Gawker's Mallory Ortberg wrote. "Another angle reporters can take is to publicly worry about the 'promising future' of the convicted rapists, now less promising as a direct result of their choice to rape someone. Reporters at CNN today chose the latter technique."
Harlow faced some of the sharpest criticism.
— Kate Aurthur (@KateAurthur) March 17, 2013
— Kathryn Moncada (@kathrynmoncada) March 18, 2013
“Yes, networks are limited in how much footage they can show when it comes to the victim and her family, whereas they can show the boys’ emotional breakdowns," Salon's Irin Carmon wrote in an email to Poynter.org. "But Harlow was narrating events and not limited to footage. Yes, these boys are young. But the seriousness of their crimes was utterly glossed over in favor of a sideshow about whether a father told his son he loved him. We rarely see such compassion evinced for young offenders when the crime isn’t rape, or when they lack the social status of football players.”
The criticism of CNN's coverage wasn't limited to tweets and blog posts. One viewer, Gabriel Garcia, launched a Change.org petition on Sunday demanding an on-air apology from the network:
That CNN decided to paint the tears of the convicted Steubenville rapists in a sympathetic light and say how their lives were ruined—while completely ignoring the fact that the rape victim's life is the one whose life was ruined by these rapists' actions—is disgusting and helps perpetuate a shameful culture in which young people never understand the concept of consent and in which rape victims are blamed and ostracized. Changing that culture must be done brick by brick, and it can start by heaping public shame on this major cable news network and forcing them to admit that they are wrong.
"I request that you apologize on-air, several times over the course of the next week, at the start of every hour, for your shameful coverage," Garcia wrote in a letter attached to the petition. "Start with Candy Crowley, Poppy Harlow and Paul Callan themselves issuing their apologies several times, then extend that to the rest of CNN's staff and Jeff Zucker himself. Admit that your coverage was extremely off base and tell us why it was off base. Use the content of this letter as a starting point if you need to."
The petition has accumulated more than 50,000 signatures.
Perhaps CNN was listening. On Monday, the network aired a segment that focused on the victim's struggle she faces as a survivor.