The New York Times is taking heat for seeming to blame a gang rape on the 11-year-old victim.
Reports of a gang rape of an 11-year-old girl in Cleveland, Texas, last autumn shocked news audiences around the world. For many, that shock turned to anger when the New York Times ran a piece that appeared to suggest the girl’s “adult” fashion choices may have been a motivator behind the attacks. Last week, the Times tried its hand at the story again, this time with some success.
So the New York Times had another go at writing about the gang rape of an 11-year-old girl in Cleveland, Texas. You may remember their first attempt. It was several hundred words long, and it was full of quotes from a variety of people: concerned and sympathetic friends of the alleged rapists; people who felt like the 11-year-old girl could have avoided being gang raped had she not dressed like such a “slut”; and people wondering if the girl’s parents could have prevented the gang rape in some way.
There are a number of things that James C. McKinley, the writer of that first article, could not manage to do at the time it was published: 1) find anyone in town who believed the child was not somehow responsible for her own assault; 2) find anyone in town who thought the issue of child rape might deserve something other than mild concern; and 3) find anyone in town who felt anything other than consternation at the way the gang rape of a child might, you know, be a little inconvenient and sad for the town.
After a widespread internet backlash and a Change.org petition, the Times’ public editor acknowledged that the story “lacked balance,” and the paper’s executive editor, Bill Keller, later called the piece “cringe-inducing” and “ham-handed.” A new story was in order, wrote Keller.
And lo, it is here – under a shared byline from McKinley and Erica Goode. The piece shows, I think, that the Times listened to its critics. The story leads with a (rightly) sympathetic view of the 11-year-old victim of this terrible, repeated crime. It quotes a woman who knew the child. It quotes the little girl’s terrified, confused, and distraught father.
But I think the paper’s reframing of the impact of the whole event on the community is interesting. McKinley’s original frame was this: How could this happen to our boys, our men, our community? His new frame, on the other hands, is this: How did our community allow this crime to take place, especially multiple times?
The old nut of the story:
The case has rocked this East Texas community to its core and left many residents in the working-class neighbourhood 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?
“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.”
And the new nut:
The arrests have raised fundamental questions about how a girl might have been repeatedly abused by many men and boys in a tightly knit community without any adult intervening, or even seeming to register that something was amiss, until sexually explicit videos of the victim began circulating in local schools.
You’ll notice that the word “attack” has been replaced with the phrase “repeatedly abused by many men and boys.” The videos apparently “began circulating” all on their own (modern technology – amazing!) but their existence at least indicates a kind of depraved pride on someone‘s behalf. In the second story, there’s culpability – at least, a little bit … somewhere.
And while in the first article the child’s clothing and behaviour are described as inviting the assault, the new article has the girl’s father noting that, no matter what she looked or dressed like, she is a child:
Juan said his daughter had been a bright and easygoing girl, adept at schoolwork. As she reached puberty, he said, she had grown tall for her age and had begun to talk about wanting to be a fashion model. Yet she was still a child; her bed was piled high with stuffed animals. “Her mind is a child’s mind,” he said. “That’s what makes me so angry.”
The accused rapists are not invisible in the second story – nor were they invisible in the first – but the second piece takes more time and nuance with the accused, and quotes relatives rather than simply those who say they knew the defendants. An aunt of one of the accused rapists is quoted, and her words express her bewilderment and confusion without necessarily absolving or blaming the defendants.
Bertha Cleveland, an aunt of Mr. Cruse, said her nephew went to church regularly, held down a job at McDonald’s and had told her he intended to go to college. “Our younger generation is running rampant,” she said. “The devil is in full control.”
The second article is, without doubt, an improvement. The question becomes, then, why did it take the Times two tries to get it right (well, better)? The first article was written well after the story itself had broken – at least in Texas. So there shouldn’t have been any particular rush to get something down on the page, which might have otherwise explained the atrociously lacking reporting in the first story. But that’s just how the first article reads – like a reporter had to jump into a new city, track down a couple of casual quotes, and get a fast impression of the place before filing copy.
That kind of reporting might fly for a story about a weird art festival, a wacky, small-town politician, or a remarkable athlete, but you can’t do that with sexual assault. And you really can’t do that with a sexual assault that has racial implications. For some reason, the Times thought it could.
I appreciate the new piece, and I appreciate the effort that was put into it. But I’m still disappointed that the people who ought to be the best journalists in the country had to engage in such a massive do-over. The second story is good, thoughtful, interesting, and well-rounded. Why? Because the reporting isn’t lazy.
I hope that whatever happened behind the scenes at the Times has led to some serious discussions about its policies when it comes to reporting on rape. I hope some people have had to rethink their assumptions about what rape culture means (or, at the very least, I hope some people have learned what rape culture is). Most of all, I hope the writers and editors at the Times want to avoid doing something like this again – not because it was a hassle and an embarrassment, but because they realize their initial coverage was so powerfully damaging.
This article first appeared at Hay Ladies!
Photo courtesy of Reuters.