The New York Times Needs to Go Back to J-School

The blogosphere and the world of journalism are on fire about a New York Times article that reported the brutal gang rape of an 11-year-old girl. The controversy isn’t about what happened, but rather information the reporter chose to include in the piece that, in essence, suggested that the elementary school girl who was the victim had somehow enticed her attackers, implying that the horrific episode was her fault.

In the article entitled “Vicious Assault Shakes Texas Town,” New York Times reporter James McKinley, Jr., recounted the story of the attack by 18 boys and men who range in age from middle-schoolers to 27, on an elementary school girl in the small town of Cleveland, Texas.  The reporter set the tone of for the article, writing, “[H]ow could their young men have been drawn into such an act?”

“Drawn into?” Really? From the start of the article, suggestions like that one — that a school girl could have compelled a variety of boys and men to gang rape her — leaves me, as the mother of an 11-year-old girl, more than shocked and appalled.  As a journalist and political commentator, it shakes my faith in the profession I’ve loved since I was a high school girl.

Only a few paragraphs into the story, after reporting the allegations themselves, the piece goes on to include comments critical of the victim and her family from townspeople:

“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.”

“Residents in the neighborhood where the abandoned trailer stands [where the alleged rape occurred] … 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.”

The main focus on the story was on feeling sorry for the alleged perpetrators and casting the 11-year-old girl in the role of the villain.  That a seasoned journalist for perhaps the most well-regarded newspaper in the world thought it was legitimate to write a story that throws an elementary school girl under the bus for statutory rape, while leaving readers with the inference that the people who allegedly attacked her, or did nothing to stop those who did, were somehow the real victims makes my head spin.

A New York Times representative defended its article this way:

“Neighbors’ comments about the girl, which we reported in the story, seemed to reflect concern about what they saw as a lack of supervision that may have left her at risk,” said Danielle Rhoades Ha, a spokeswoman for the paper. “As for residents’ references to the accused having to ‘live with this for the rest of their lives,’ those are views we found in our reporting.”

Finally, days after the report, came this, Gang Rape Story Lacked Balance:

While the story appeared to focus on the community’s reaction to the crime, it was not enough to simply report that the community is principally concerned about the boys and men involved – as this story seems to do. If indeed that is the only sentiment to be found in this community – and I find that very hard to believe – it becomes important to report on that as well by seeking out voices of professional authorities or dissenting community members who will at least address, and not ignore, the plight of the young girl involved.

When asked about whether the original New York Times story was a fair account, Julie Moos, Director of Poynter Online, an online journalism institute, said:

What the best journalism provides is context: information that confirms, contradicts, explains the history, circumstances and implications of a specific event that is the subject of direct and immediate reporting. When someone is covering rape or sexual assault, that context should include an understanding of cultural traps — coded language, wink-wink/nod-nod dynamics, the buried beliefs that affect what we notice and how we express it.

Under that definition, the New York Times failed miserably.

In addition to any context about a community or cultural traps or buried beliefs, there’s one more thing the reporter failed at, and that was to consider the age of the victim.  It’s bad enough to suggest that any victim of sexual violence beings it on herself (or himself).  But as the mother of a girl the same age as the victim, the idea that any reporter could in good conscience write a piece suggesting that an 11-year-old girl could have any role is appalling to me. I know full well that inside my own tomboy daughter there is a nascent flirty girl about to come out.  Eleven is a huge transitional age where hate of anything girly begins to transform into shy fascination. Lip gloss is all of sudden a welcomed gift rather than an embarrassment.  The fact a fifth-grader hasn’t yet gotten to the point where he or she can make completely reasoned decisions for themselves is exactly why we have statutory rape laws.

There is supposedly a follow-up story in the works at the New York Times.  That’s all well and good, but those who saw nothing wrong with the original story or its reporting should probably touch base with Poynter’s Moos for some refresher courses on telling the difference between journalism, sensationalism and what facts are relevant in any given news account.  Though in this time of things like Charlie Sheen, Bristol Palin and so many other non-stories that consume our attention, that’s probably too much to hope for.

UPDATE: Well, it looks like the New York Times isn’t the only news outlet that needs some refresher courses.

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3 Responses to “The New York Times Needs to Go Back to J-School”

  1. Jo Says:

    I just read that second article and find it odd that the paper agreed not to identify the victim, yet then included this:

    The woman appeared in at least two issues of the Hustler-owned Taboo magazine, including a July 2007 cover shot.

    That’s, um, identifying her, isn’t it? A quick Google search would probably turn up that cover. Ugh.

  2. Danny Boy Says:

    The NYT didn’t misreport the facts. That was their defense, and they were right in their way. They’re supposed to provide a larger context, gather comments from the community, and they did.

    Their real failure was to misidentify the story. When reporting strictly on crimes themselves, journalistic standards and practices channel the narrative into siting with communities, even when the communities are wrong.

    The real story was that a child had been violated and locals had a completely inverted morality about it. Contrasting details of the crime that would force the reader to identify with the victim (how long it took, visual details of the grim scene, choice excerpts from the police report, comment from the victim if you can get one) with the misplaced sympathy of the citizenry would have made all the difference.

    Maybe missing this simple trick was a matter of sheer mediocrity and naivete on the part of the reporter and editors. More likely it was cowardice. The specter of “bias” and its fearful improprieties causing a predictable, reactionary flinch against shadows. The last decade has been a craven era in news media. The systematic failure to take obvious moral stands against wars and witch hunts has been like writing small, safe checks against a dwindling bank account. The account is now exhausted and papers are collapsing. When old enough to grasp how her plight was handled by the paper of record and final objective appeal, this girl might have the bitter good fortune to whisper “good riddance”.

  3. Cynthia Finnegan Says:

    If I had an 11-year-old daughter and that had happened to her, I’d castrate the lot of them.

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