March 22, 2013

Steubenville Meets the 24-hour News Cycle

WynnBy Jonathan Wynn

You are likely familiar with the Steubenville, Ohio case where two teenaged boys were recently convicted of raping a young woman. 

There have been some great sociological analyses about it. Sarah Sobieraj wrote an OpEd on the ”digital residue” of the case highlighting how social media drew the story out into the light of day, Evan Stewart wrote at The Society Pages on our male-dominated society, the UK’s Guardian discusses the town’s economic woes, and Lisa Wade wrote about the media’s response to the verdict.

On the last angle, I don’t know about you, but my Facebook page blew up with anger over the media’s response. As the verdict came in, CNN anchor Candy Crowley and her correspondent, Poppy Harlow, expressed sympathy for the two boys whose lives were forever changed by the verdict (watch it here). Harlow solemnly intoned:

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 believed their lives fell apart. One of the young men, when that sentence came down, Ma’lik collapsed. He collapsed in the arms of his attorney... He said to him, “My life is over. No one is going to want me now.“ Very serious crime here, both found guilty of raping the sixteen-year-old girl at a series of parties back in August. Alcohol-infused parties…

Crowley’s further questioning was concerned with the “lasting effect on two young men.”

Some of my friends were angry these reporters seemed to openly lament the judicial system that worked. “What,” other friends wondered, “about the life of the young woman who was raped? What about the lasting effect on her life?” CNN’s coverage led to outrage (there’s even an online petition asking for an apology), although NBC, ABC, and USA Today were apparently no better.

When critiquing the media it is important to understand the ”rules of the game.“ This is something I learned from On Television, a 1996 lecture by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu broadcast on French public television, about how television news works. For example, a rule of the game is that news looks for the ”man bites dog” story. The “dog bites man” story is common and journalists, Bourdieu notes, “are interested in the exception, which means whatever is exceptional for them.”

For another example: news media doesn’t require the smartest people to participate, but rather requires “fast thinkers” who perform best as the cameras roll. Paramount in these rules is that television news, particularly in the 24-hour news cycle, requires sensation. It seeks out stories that stoke emotional connections. On that point, Crowley and Harlow’s personal empathy with the perpetrators makes more sense.

Because of the custom of protecting of the victim (anonymously named "Jane Doe") one of the only ways the media can draw out this sensationalist story is exploit the only available resources: the tragic personal journey of two good looking, clean cut, young Ma’lik Richmond and Trent Mays. This, for Bourdieu, is a kind of invisible censorship because the victim’s story was out of bounds. (There are very good reasons for this. Even though there are protections, such as the Violence Against Women Act’s ”rape shield law,” media outlets do have First Amendment protection to report a victim’s name, as Fox News initially did. Still, it is customary for media not to disclose the name due to the chilling effect it would have for other victims to come forward. Here is a more law-oriented discussion of this issue.)

It reminds me of research on how these rules of the game lead local news to highlight more violent crimes and street crimes. White-collar crimes are harder stories to tell for television news: they are less sensational, more likely to be drawn out in dull courtroom proceedings, and therefore, less likely to attract the media spotlight.

But, they are also committed by a different group of people. Through an absence (or invisible censorship) similar to the Steubenville case, we, as viewers, grow accustomed to seeing only part of the story. Only certain crimes and certain perpetrators get displayed (i.e., African-American, poor, etc.) while others are hidden. Barry Glassner’s The Culture of Fear is one of my favorite books, because it highlights a variety of what we think we’re afraid of with similar what we should be thinking of instead. (For example, we worry about ”road rage” when we should be worried that cars are a very unsafe mode of transportation.)

Glassner also explains that even though the media stokes fears of African-American males, African-American males are more likely to be victims of crime than they are to be perpetrators, and they are also are at greater risk of health issues, employment discrimination, for example, than the media portrays.

Reports of street crime differentiate based upon race. There has been a lot of great research on this, but take a look at this image which illustrates how victims of gun violence are reported by the Chicago Tribune. The handwritten analysis of the news item reads: “One person shot in white neighborhood, 370 words. Four shot in black neighborhoods, 23 words (six words a person).” (The online commentator later notes that there is a significant Latino population in the first neighborhood, which only illustrates invisible censorship further.)

Being a sociologist means not thinking solely about more individualistic explanations, but rather considering the structural issues in the media’s reporting of issues of gender, sex, race, and crime. After reading Bourdieu’s work, it is harder to lay a full load of blame on Crowley, Harlow, and other talking heads. It would be hard to deny there is a tragic and potentially dangerous level of victim-blaming and sympathy for convicted rapists going on in the Steubenville case, even though the CNN journalists were women. Individualistic explanations shouldn’t, therefore, distract us when we should be thinking about the media apparatus in addition to analyzing why rape is so common in our broader culture (according to the Department of Justice, as of 2012, 1 in 5 college women are raped, and only 26% of those say their assailant  was a stranger).

In 1996, when Bourdieu wrote ,there was no social media, and if he were alive he would likely have to amend his On Television to address not only how social media brought the story into the light (let’s not forget the role the hacking collective Anonymous played), but also how social media allows everyday folk to directly engage with and critique the media. That’s a structural change. With this in mind, what else do you feel the media can do?

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Comments

Your post made me think about our local news media. In a town with several military bases and plenty of crime, it is far more common to hear a perpetrator's race reported than to hear that they are military. There seems to be some unwritten rule about not making the military look bad.

Race should probably not be even mentioned.

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