Concerns expressed over victim blaming in New York Times article on gang rape (Updated)

A New York Times article sparked controversy this week on how it reported a gang rape in Texas. The March 8 story, “Vicious Assault Shakes Texas Town” by James C. McKinley Jr.,  is about the reaction of a community to the gang rape of an 11-year-old girl in an abandoned trailer. Eighteen young men and boys have been charged in the case ranging in age from middle schoolers to a 27 year old.

The article stirred up concern with how the coverage encourages victim blaming without context. The reporter included a description, according to residents, that the girl “dressed older than her age, wearing makeup and fashions more appropriate to a woman in her 20s.” Of the fact that the girl had been seen visiting friends in the area of the incident for months, one resident asked, “Where was her mother? What was her mother thinking?”

While these comments appear to blame the 11-year-old, and her mother, for her own gang rape, other lines in the article portray sympathy for those involved, such as the following:

The case has rocked this East Texas community to its core and left many residents in the working-class neighborhood 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.”….

In light of this, the article drew a fury of comments, including a petition by Shelby Knox  demanding a published apology for coverage and an editorial from a victim’s rights expert on how victim blaming condones sexual assault. As of Saturday, the petition had more than 42,500 signatures and 2,500 comments.

A Mother Jones analysis titled “The New York Times’ Rape-Friendly Reporting” notes that McKinley can’t be faulted for reporting “uncomfortable” facts like that some residents have sympathy for the perpetrators and that victim blaming exists, but the problem lies in the fact that there is no other side reported.

At first, the New York Times’ only response was to publish a letter to the editor received about the article. A spokeswoman answered questions for The Cutline, saying that the paper stands by the piece and that the views expressed were those of residents that were found not the reporter.

The Times’ public editor, Arthur S. Brisbane, responded Friday, noting that the outrage was “understandable. The story dealt with a hideous crime but addressed concerns about the ruined lives of the perpetrators without acknowledging the obvious: concern for the victim.” He also observes that context and balance were lacking, writing that he finds it hard to believe that comments expressed in the article are the only opinions held in the community. He notes the Times is working on a follow-up story.

Other news sources have reported on the incident, including the Associated Press and the Houston Chronicle, without drawing the same ire of commentators. The difference? Context and providing voices on the other side of the issue.

When it comes to the journalistic value of this article, Poynter’s Latoya Peterson perhaps says it best: “The purpose of journalism is to illuminate issues, provide context and produce fair coverage about the incidents that occur in our world. The New York Times piece does not meet this standard.”

A happier note for women

On a more positive front, March 8 also marked the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day and spurred a plethora of coverage and features about women.

Here were some of our favorites:

With all the coverage and attention to women on March 8, we wish the media treated every day like International Women’s Day.

This is the Gender Report’s Week in Review, a weekly post that highlights some of the major stories related to gender issues this week. Some of these stories may have already appeared in our News Feed or in the week’s Gender Checks. We’ll at times include a longer analysis of stories as well as bring attention to stories that may have slipped through the cracks of the week’s news cycle.

UPDATE: The New York Times published a follow-up article on this incident March 28 with far more detail, including an exclusive interview with the girl’s father. It also provides more background on those who have been charged. In a piece for Poynter, Mallary Jean Tenore and Julie Moos argue that though the Times does provide more context it still repeats some of the same mistakes and raises some additional concerns, including with issues of race. As they note, “But alternating, incomplete accounts do not create balance.”

One thought on “Concerns expressed over victim blaming in New York Times article on gang rape (Updated)

  1. Jenaveve Linabary March 13, 2011 / 1:31 am

    This is awful. I am really disgusted with this, especially in light of the violence prevention groups we’ve been talking about in Gender Communication.

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