Two Steubenville, Ohio teens, Trent Mays, 17, and Ma'lik Richmond, 16, were found guilty Sunday in the rape of an allegedly intoxicated 16-year-old girl, a case that attracted national attention when a video of teens joking about the rape went viral. But while covering the guilty verdict as breaking news, CNN's Candy Crowley and Poppy Harlow seemed -- to many social media users and bloggers -- to be oddly focused on how the verdict would negatively impact the lives of the convicted rapists.
Harlow began her coverage of the verdict by recounting the boys' emotional reactions to the verdict (You can read the segment's full transcript here):
"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."
CNN legal expert Paul Callan then weighed in on the "lasting effect" the verdict would have on the two convicted teens:
"Sixteen-year-olds just sobbing in court, regardless of what big football players they are, they still sound like sixteen-year-olds...what's the lasting effect, though, on two young men being found guilty in juvenile court of rape, essentially?"
Social media users, journalists and women's rights advocates, who felt that CNN had taken an overly sympathetic view of convicted rapists, immediately fired back on Twitter.
Jessica Valenti, a prominent feminist writer and blogger, tweeted:
@poppyharlowcnn You should be ASHAMED for siding with CONVICTED rapists instead of the REAL victim. The only alleged thing is your humanity.— Wish in One Hand (@wishinonehand) March 18, 2013
"It's perfectly understandable, when reporting on a rape trial, to discuss the length and severity of the sentence," Gawker wrote. "It is less understandable to discuss the end of two convicted rapists' future athletic and academic careers as if it were somehow divorced from the laws of cause and effect."— Jessica Valenti (@JessicaValenti) March 18, 2013Advertisement
More than 32,000 people have already signed a Change.org petition demanding that CNN apologize for its coverage, calling it a "breach of journalistic ethics."
Rape cases often have anonymous victims, which makes covering rape particularly challenging for news outlets looking for personal angles to the story, as Poynter observed Monday.
"When journalists first began covering the Steubenville case earlier this year, they revealed little about the young woman," Poynter's Mallary Jean Tenore wrote, "Because she hadn’t spoken out and her identity was being protected, coverage focused mostly on the men."
Matt Lauer, for example, was criticized for interviewing Richmond's lawyer and ex-guardians in January. The story featured childhood photos of Richmond while his ex-guardians said they supported him.