From Big Dan’s to Steubenville: A Generation Later, Media Coverage of Rape Still Awful

This past Sunday, 16-year-old Ma’lik Richmond and 17-year-old Trent Mays were found delinquent (the equivalent of guilty in juvenile court) of raping a 16-year-old girl in front of their friends at a series of parties in Steubenville, Ohio. Mays was also found delinquent on charges of the illegal use of a minor in nudity-oriented material for texting a picture he took of the victim while she was naked.

Almost exactly 30 years earlier, in March 1983, a woman was gang raped by at least four men—six were originally charged—in Big Dan’s Tavern in New Bedford, Massachusetts. The victim in the Big Dan’s attack was Cheryl Araujo, a 21-year-old mother of two who lived down the street from the tavern. (The 1988 film The Accused is loosely based on the incident.)

There are striking parallels between the two cases. And, notably, they illustrate how little the media’s coverage of rape cases has changed over the decades.

Reporters covering the Big Dan’s case openly struggled with responsible reporting issues, such as whether or not to name the victim and how to give context to victim-blaming quotes from community members.

Araujo was told in court that she had to “prove her innocence.” She was aggressively cross-examined and grilled about her drinking. “She was as much on trial as the defendants,” an advocate told the Associated Press.

In both the Big Dan’s and Steubenville cases, the public was shocked by the presence of bystanders who joined in, cheered, or did nothing to stop the attacks. That shock converged with anxiety over the role a new media format played in each case: As Columbia University journalism professor Helen Benedict noted in the landmark 1993 book, Virgin or Vamp: How the Press Covers Sex Crimes, the newfangled media in the Big Dan’s case was 24-hour cable news.

The Steubenville case, of course, was documented on and subsequently unfolded through social media: The assailants took photos of the victim looking unconscious. A friend shot, and later deleted, video of Mays assaulting the victim in a car. A blogger named Alexandra Goddard helped the case gain attention by chiseling away at it on her website. Loosely organized hacker group Anonymous posted a video of the attackers’ friend laughing hysterically about the assault, which galvanized outrage about the case. Crime scene investigators didn’t need the victim’s underwear, which went missing after the assault, to get a guilty verdict; they had the assailants’ smart phones.

Swap “social media” for “television” in Benedict’s assessment of the Big Dan’s case, and it could apply to Steubenville: “The all-pervasive presence of television contributed to making the media part of the story itself, which elicited its own set of reactions among the public,” she wrote.

Benedict added that the Big Dan’s case “evolved into a blatant example of the way women are regarded once they become rape victims. And it put the press to an unusual test—a test of how to be fair in the light of violent feelings, extreme and opposing points of view, and vociferous criticism.”

Media outlets have been put to that same test of fairness while covering Steubenville. Many have failed in significant ways.

Take for instance this recent report from ABC’s 20/20. From the report’s opening lines: “The juvenile trial … is every parent’s nightmare and a cautionary tale for teenagers living in today’s digital world.”

Is it a nightmare that there was a trial, or that a child was raped?

As the Steubenville case has shown, the real “cautionary tale” is that American teenagers either don’t think rape is wrong or have such a distorted view of rape that they can’t recognize it when it occurs right in front of them.

This chilling truth is confirmed by Evan Westlake’s testimony. Westlake is a friend of the convicted rapists who admitted that he saw the victim lying naked on her side and not moving while Richmond was “beside her performing a sex act and Mays was smacking his penis on her side.”

“It wasn’t violent,” testified Westlake. “I didn’t know exactly what rape was.”

The teens’ inability to identify rape—or even wrongful treatment of another human being—is also evident in the excruciating video of the assailants’ friend Michael Nodianos, who was taped drunkenly laughing about the assault and mocking the victim with other boys.

Yet the 20/20 report makes it sound like the “cautionary tale” is: If you rape someone, be careful not to upload the evidence. People can see it!

The piece goes on to dismiss use of the term gang rape to describe the attack. “The social media frenzy took on a life of its own, with reports going as far as calling the incident a ‘gang-rape’ of an unconscious girl. In reality, prosecutors contend that Mays and Richmond used their hands to penetrate her while she was too drunk to consent.”

More than one person took turns sexually assaulting a single victim. That sounds like a gang rape to me; it does not need scare quotes around it to suggest it is a questionable description.

A few paragraphs later, the incident is described as “reckless teen behavior.”

Meanwhile, the Huffington Post Twitter account put out a tweet with the word rape in scare quotes: “Witness claims he recorded, deleted high school ‘rape.'” There was plenty of room in that tweet to include the word alleged. (The tweet was deleted after push back.)

And after the verdict was announced Sunday, two CNN anchors and a contributor discussed how the “promising” lives the convicted rapists had been ruined. “There’s always that moment of just—lives are destroyed,” said legal contributor Paul Callan. Note the passive tense there. The implication is that the rapists didn’t ruin their own lives by raping; rather, their lives were ruined by an outside force, or someone else.

Callan also noted that Mays’ and Richmond’s mandatory enrollment in a sex offender registry “will haunt them for the rest of their lives,” with nary a mention of how sexual assault can affect survivors for the rest of their lives.

After the Big Dan’s trial, Cheryl Araujo was ostracized in her hometown and moved to Florida, where she died at in a car crash at age 25.

Thirty years—a whole generation—after that case, some journalists are fawning over convicted rapists, and locals upset with the guilty verdicts are dragging Jane Doe’s name through the mud. Two teen girls were arrested Monday for physically threatening the victim on Twitter—the same day Fox News broadcast a clip exposing the name of the victim, who is a minor.

In her chapter on the Big Dan’s case in Virgin or Vamp, Benedict quotes the Washington Post:

“What is remarkable about the whole exercise is how nothing much has changed. For all the talk about rape recently, for all that has been written, for all the progress supposedly made by the women’s movement, people are still trying to explain the rape by wondering what the victim did to provoke it.”

Sadly, that could have been written today.

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  • Jonah

    I agree with this entire article. The media distortions of the case are disgusting, truly indicative of “anti-progress.” I would, however, make one point – a point that doesn’t rebut the crux of your argument, but is pertinent nonetheless.

    I find it more insensitive to withhold the name of the victim. I understand why some would see to the contrary – who, at the age of 16, wants their name out in the world, to be perhaps forever immortalized as “the Steubenville rape victim?”

    But this line of logic is entirely deleterious to the public’s conception of rape victims, because it defines rape on the supposed “protector’s” terms – that the victim would be ashamed if their name were revealed because they’re ashamed of what happened – that they feel, somehow, complicit in the crime (an entirely fallacious idea). No matter how drunk this girl was, none of this was her fault – it was the fault of two misguided teenagers. We also advance the entirely archaic notion of a woman rendered invalid by the loss of her purity (in this case, virginity). If her name is disclosed, the logic goes, she will be forever marked by this crime – ignoring the fact that none of this, again, was her fault – and thus relegated to a lower place on the social scale because of it. Do you see how backward these assumptions are?

    I highly recommend reading Joan Didion’s essay, “Sentimental Journeys,” about the Central Park Jogger. It was very illuminating on, among other things, the issue of rape.

    • Rebecca

      ‘I find it more insensitive to withhold the name of the victim. I understand why some would see to the contrary – who, at the age of 16, wants their name out in the world, to be perhaps forever immortalized as “the Steubenville rape victim?'”

      In a world where rape survivors are routinely blamed, ridiculed, humiliated, made the brunt of vicious gossip and “jokes”, accused of lying, accused of ruining the lives of rapists, vilified by the media, threatened with “real rape this time” or even death — in a world where rape is vastly under-reported because of the frightening way our justice system treats victims of sexual assault — a statement like the Jonah’s baffles the mind. Even more baffling is that anyone could make such a comment after reading the above article.

      My rape occurred three decades ago. I greatly admire the tremendous courage of survivors who report their sexual assaults and seek justice. At the same time, I have never regretted my personal decision not to go to the police. I was thankful that, in the terrible aftermath of my awful ordeal, I could throw myself into my work, and I could do so in a safe environment where no one knew what had happened to me. I was thankful that I had some amount of control in choosing whom to trust enough to tell and how much information to trust them with.

      Were the few people who knew of my rape being insensitive by honoring my request for privacy? No. They would have been insensitive to do otherwise.

      For those like Jonah who think the media is being insensitive to rape survivors by not identifying them by name, I have a simple bit of advice: should you ever find yourself in such a situation, hold a press conference and out yourself publicly. In this Internet age, there are many other ways in which you can make sure your name is not being insensitively withheld from the world. But please allow other rape survivors to decide whether or not to invite the nightmare of publicity into their lives.

      If you are worried more about “insensitivity” towards anyone but the individual who was actually raped and has to live with the consequences for the rest of his/her life…well, that baffles the mind even more than your cluelessness.

      • Jonah

        Please understand that I’m not trying to be insensitive to victims of rape at all. I’m merely trying to point out that the litany of ills you mention are the product of a society whose conceptions of rape are entirely distorted. And these distortions are either mirrored or exacerbated by media coverage.

        So, do we accept the status quo? Do we continue to allow these gross misconceptions to thrive? I genuinely hope not. I completely respect your decision to keep what happened to you a secret, and to be able to continue in a safe environment.

        I think, actually, that you’re right. It is not (at least for now) incumbent on the media to out the name of the victim. That’s her personal choice. But it will certainly take a brave coalition of women – and perhaps even rape victims – to stand up and speak out against these vicious crimes in order to see any change in our culture that almost automatically sides with the perpetrators of such an awful crime.

        As for that last paragraph, I don’t know where you even got that idea from.

        • Carla Clark

          Why must the victims stand up for a problem they did not cause? That’s victim-blaming.

          • Jonah

            It is not at all victim-blaming. It’s acknowledging that the current social landscape as it relates to gender is cruel and unfair, and that eradicating the problem of rape might be infeasible. As things stand right now, men get away with rape. All the time. It’s not right, it’s not fair, but it’s true. So how do you rectify such a horrid hole in our legal system? You call it out. And who is a more powerful voice to denounce such a hole than a person who has been made a victim by it? The perpetrators certainly aren’t going to.

  • Robert Comer

    Agree 100%—but let’s go farther: WHO provided the under-aged boys with alcohol? Did they use a date rape drug on the girl? How hard did investigators try to find out? WHO is selling drugs in Jefferson County? Is there a pattern of official corruption and wrong-doing in Jefferson County and why was the Steubenville PD previously investigated and sanctioned for law violations? How many adults, including the head football coach and other coaches, knew about the sexual assault? HOW many parents of students knew about the sexual assault and did nothing about it? Why wasn’t the term “Rape Crew” given more coverage? THAT is the name the football players gave themselves!!! The bottom line here is that there is a long list of people in Jefferson County who (1) are guilty of not reporting the sexual assault (2) guilty of providing alcohol to the minor males (3) guilty of obstructing justice by telling the boys and others to delete the images of the sexual assault from electronic devices (4) guilty of threatening a journalist for asking questions (the head football coach did it) (5) guilty of trying to get the family of the victim to NOT press charges—the Prosecutor’s office! and (6) guilty of creating a community environment that caused the delinquency of a long list of minors.