in journalism, justice, Uncategorized

The Atrocious Sexual Assault Reporting of the NYTimes

The New York Times recently published a piece by James C. McKinley about the brutal gang rape of an 11-year old girl. Here’s an excerpt from the piece:

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…

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?”

Even on its face, the implication that the victim might have somehow been responsible for her own assault seems abhorrent in such a story (conveniently, the people explaining her proclivities are relegated to the anonymous “some”).

Emily Long explains why she thinks this article is a pretty poor piece of reporting:

And here we have another variation on blaming the victim, which is blaming the victim’s parents. For one thing, the girl’s mother did not grant permission for a child to be viciously assaulted. We have no background on what was going on in the victim’s private life (which is as it should be; she and her family deserve anonymity). For all we know, the girl was no more supervised at home than she was in the Quarters, and the reasons for that could be any number of possibilities. Within the article, that makes for two quotes working against the victim, and none against the accused beyond statements about how devastated the community is by the attack as a whole.

Mary Elizabeth Williams chimes in with a thoughtful, well-written analysis (as usual):

The question, however, is not what that girl or her mother did to bring this on. And it’s sloppy journalism for a reporter to run a story that casts a victim and her mother as somehow responsible for an attack, especially without including a single quote from anyone in town with a more sympathetic view of the family. That’s far from the balanced journalism the Times aspires to. The girl’s mother, identified only as Maria, told the New York Daily news this week that the family has received several angry phone calls, and that the child has been moved to foster care for her protection. “These guys knew she was in middle school,” she said. “You could tell whenever you talked to her. She still loves stuffed teddy bears.” Where’s that quote in the Times story?

It’s a painful thing to contemplate that a girl’s circumstances may have made her more vulnerable to attack. But being vulnerable does not put the burden of what happens on the victim. No 11-year-old deserves a word of questioning or doubt on that front. No one who has ever been sexually assaulted, and certainly none who has ever been sexually assaulted in such a sustained and inhumane way, deserves to have her makeup or clothing brought into the conversation, regardless of her age. And how demoralizing, how outrageous, how sickening that once again, when a female is brutally and inhumanely attacked, the issue of what her multiple assailants apparently did somehow pales next to the curiosity over what she must have done to provoke it.

  • Woah!

    First and foremost, the poor girl is a victim and there are no parts of the article that state otehrwise. I didn't read the article and think anyone was "blaming the victim".

    Fact of the matter is that when such a tragedy arises there are many, many more aspects to the situation than simply whats on the surface.

    What creates such attackers? Most abusers have often been abused themselves in childhood. What are the state doing to support victims of abuse in the first instance?

    Should parents of 11-year olds be aware of what their children are doing? Shouldn't they ensure that the child is safe at all times?

    The girl dressed "in her 20's". Why? Whether its right or wrong, who does she look up to in dressing such a way? And who is responsible for such 'role models' in society?

    None of these facets change the horrendous nature of the crime committed. But they are questions worth thinking about.

  • @Simon-They may be 'questions worth thinking about', but the article poses them as the ONLY questions to think about, and that's utterly irresponsible. I think it is more important to be focusing on what kind of morality could allow these men and boys to believe that they are in the right doing something so atrocious. Where are THEIR mothers?

    The girl may have been acting inappropriately, but what the men and boys did was far and away worse, and the reporter did not turn that scrutiny on them.

    I think Long makes a very good point in her comment on the piece when she notes that the only notes of empathy in the original article are for the accused. How is that appropriate?

    Also–being the victim of abuse does not give anyone the right to turn around and perpetuate that cycle.

    The bottom line is: A tragically young girl was horrendously taken advantage of and abused. Doesn't matter what she was wearing. Doesn't matter who she was hanging out with. The blame lies SQUARELY on the heads of those SOBs that decided that their motivations to hurt were more important than this individual's right to safety.

  • "what kind of morality could allow these men and boys to believe that they are in the right doing something so atrocious? Where are THEIR mothers?" Completely right – and that is a huge question!

    At any rate, I think it is safe to assume that the reporter is not pro-rape in any context and the implication that by noting the people who the victim hung around with or the clothes she wore is somehow implying that she brought it on herself is a step too far. I doubt the reporter, in any way, felt that.

    I started writing a paragraph about what you mentioned about the lack of empathy for the victim in the article and stopped short – what exactly would 'good' coverage of a gang-rape of an 11-year-old case be? I really wouldn't know how to answer this. Maybe just the headline would be sufficient in terms of informing us about what happened.

    I think in a court of law – you are completely right – "The blame lies SQUARELY on the heads of those SOBs". Indeed, they should be locked up and the key thrown away.

    As a reader of a newspaper though – rather than judge or juror – again the questions you say "don't matter" may, in fact, be worth investigating.

    We all have a responsibility to society and though these factors are not related to the crime (in so much as what she wears clearly does not justify rape) it is a truth that children are sexualised at too young-an-age – potentially through what they wear and who influence them and who they imitate (we have a boy band in the UK with a fanbase from the ages of 7-19 and they have their faces promoting safe-sex on condoms. The bands faces are plastered onto the boxes! yet, at the same time, they have dolls available in toy shops). I know its a separate issue, but it is nevertheless an issue.

    Having read the article in full, in fairness, my biggest problem is the relentless detail of the 'abandoned trailer': "The abandoned trailer … is full of trash and has a blue tarp hanging from the front. Inside there is a filthy sofa, a disconnected stove in the middle of the living room, a broken stereo and some forlorn Christmas decorations. A copy of the search warrant was on a counter in the kitchen next to some abandoned family pictures."

    Another issue … is child-abuse exclusively within economically-deprived areas? I think not…