Sexual Assault Stories Challenging For Journalists

Outraged readers blasted the New York Times over its coverage of the alleged gang rape of an 11-year-old girl in the small town of Cleveland, Texas. NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik talks about the story, and why covering sexual assault remains such a challenge for the news media.

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LYNN NEARY, host:

Outraged readers blasted The New York Times this month for its coverage of the alleged gang rape of an 11-year-old girl in the small town of Cleveland, Texas. Many readers said the story seemed to blame the girl for the attack. They pointed to the story's focus and the community's comments about the girl's family, her makeup and the way she dressed. The coverage also emphasized concern for the 18 men and teenage boys charged in the crime, while leaving out any comments sympathetic to the young victim.

In an unusual move, the paper sent the original reporter and a second one to re-report the story, which was published earlier this week.

The controversy over the story is a reminder of how covering sexual assault remains a difficult challenge for many news media organizations, particularly when issues of race and ethnicity are also involved.

As news listeners and readers, what do you expect from journalists when they're covering these types of crimes? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at out website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

With me now to explain the story and the debate around it is NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik, and he joins us from our New York bureau.

David, welcome as always to TALK OF THE NATION. Good to have you with us.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: Hey, Lynn. Thanks so much.

NEARY: So, before we get into the controversy over the way The Times covered the story, can you fill us in on the incident itself? What happened?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, it's an appalling incident that is said by police down in Cleveland to have occurred. You're talking about an incident in which now, I believe, there are 19 young men and teenage boys aged from 14 to 27 are accused of gang-raping an 11-year-old girl, repeatedly, over the course of one day but also it now appears over the course of a number of other occasions, as well - a half dozen.

NEARY: So how did The New York Times cover this story the first time around, when it first covered it?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, in early March or in March 8th, there was a story about this by a James McKinley Jr., and the headlines struck the tone. It said vicious assault shakes Texas town. So it did say it was vicious, but the story itself seemed to focus in its tone and its approach in the repercussions within the town, the emotions about it.

The fourth paragraph set the tone in some ways for a lot of readers. It said that the case had rocked the community, and it said among them is, if the allegations are proved, how could their young men have been drawn into such an act.

And a hospital worker, who's 48, who lives there, who knows some of the defendants, was quoted saying, quote, "These boys have to live with this the rest of their lives." You didn't hear anyone articulating what the young girl would have to live through as a result of this incident.

NEARY: Yeah. And when I read that story what struck me was exactly what you just pointed out. That you didn't really hear the other side of the story, and it left me wondering did - was the reporter unable to get somebody to talk to him on the record other than this woman who made some of these comments or did he not work hard enough to find the other side of the story. Do we know the answer to those kinds of questions at all?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, what we know from some of the comments by The Times senior standards editor, a guy named Phil Corbett, is he said, you know, these were -and a spokeswoman as well - after a lot of public outcry released a statement. They were saying, look, these were the reactions that the reporter was eliciting from the community. This is what he got.

But there were elements there that weren't present - that were present in the kinds of reporting that you saw in some other news outlets, like The Associated Press and the Houston Chronicle - Cleveland is about 50 miles outside of the city of Houston - that had also covered the incident, and this did not - this seemed to sort turn a deaf ear to the idea of what the repercussions could be.

NEARY: What were some of those other elements that were reported by other news organizations?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, for example, I remember one guy who was quoted, and he was described as being a relative of - an uncle of one of the defendants, maybe perhaps a little tenuous, but that's how he's described. And ultimately, he said, you know, an 11-year-old girl is an 11-year-old girl. People should pay for doing this to her, no matter the circumstances.

Part of what they're reacting to also in the initial story by The New York Times, they were describing the victim as saying, and this is a direct quote here, "She dressed older than her age, according to residents in the neighborhood, 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?" And that was a quote from a resident there.

And, you know, it seems to suggest, well, she's flirtatious. She's somehow older than her age. The misunderstanding is going to happen. This was not accompanied by the notion of the age of consent, which 11 is clearly much lower than, or the notion that, you know, a gang rape is quite different.

NEARY: Yeah. There was a tremendous reaction to this. Maybe can you summarize what people's complaints were, why were people so upset?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, I think there's obviously - the news media has long struggled with how to cover sexual assault and rape, how to balance the notion of, you know, the balance of proof being on the prosecution in terms of accusing somebody of a felony like this. Also, of, you know, being respectful of the privacy of rape. Rape is a crime that not only has a victim but, you know, there is this notion of shame that has been attached to it somehow, although victims, you know, are still victims.

And particularly until there were women helping to run news rooms across the country, this was often an issue that women felt was handled terribly by the news media. This is part of that legacy, I think.

NEARY: Now, the Times sent the original reporter to go back and redo the story, and a second reporter as well. First of all, how unusual is it for a newspaper to do that?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, you and I were talking about that a little bit this morning. It's very unusual to see what was essentially a front page, major story, above the fold, as we like to say, intending to draw attention to it, saying this is going to be a definitive account of what happened. And you don't see make-ups that are as explicit as that. And usually in these organizations will do makeup stories but not signal or acknowledge that's what they were doing.

Bill Keller, the executive editor of the New York Times, essentially signaled that's what was going on. In a recent column in a Sunday Times magazine, he said that the story was so "ham-handed" that in order to - and ham-handed is a direct quote. He said than in order to remedy it, they had to order up an entire other story. They're not even doing a correction or clarification. They say, let's just, you know, do a do-over on this. And indeed, the second story came at it with a fuller, different take.

NEARY: We are talking with NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik about the controversy over the New York Times' coverage of an alleged sexual assault of a young girl. We're going to take a call now from Patty(ph), and she is in Charleston, South Carolina. Hi, Patty.

PATTY (Caller): Hello?

NEARY: Hi, Patty. Go ahead.

PATTY: I wanted to tell you all that I got a new car, I was tuning the radio and turned to your channel - your station on, and I haven't turned it off since.

NEARY: Thank you for listening. Did you want to contribute to the conversation?

PATTY: I did. I said I wanted to read both stories. I didn't read the first story. I just believe that no matter what, nobody invites that kind of attack on themselves if their walking down the street without any clothes on. It's brutal, and I wish we could rise above this kind of brutality as human beings.

NEARY: All right. Well, thank you so much for calling in, Patty.

PATTY: Yes, thank you.

NEARY: So clearly, you know, David, just reflecting what Patty is saying, there is a great deal of emotion around these kinds of stories, which makes it harder for a journalist when you're dealing with that kind of very - you know, with that kind of material.

FOLKENFLIK: That's right. There were a number of bloggers for Mother Jones and for - feminist activists who lashed out rhetorically at the Times, saying that this was, you know, almost a second affront to the victim. And, in fact, there was a petition that garnered 47,000 signatures asking for an apology. You know, Huffington Post and Yahoo! News picked it out. This really reverberated in a resounding way.

You know, it may well be that, you know, somebody says that a gang rape has been alleged to have occurred, and you almost don't need to explicitly say this is something that will be devastating to someone. It is such an atrocity once proven to have happened that, in and of itself, it may not seem that that it needs more explicating.

But, obviously, in the way in which this story was framed, it - the initial story focused so much on what this would to the defendants and the tight-knit community there, that it seem to relegate that to an afterthought.

NEARY: David, you were saying just a little bit ago that, you know, as more women came into the news business, into the news room that I guess there were more sensitivity to some of the issues around stories like this. How has the coverage of rape changed or the journalistic ethics involved in covering rape? How has it changed over the years?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, there's been a very interesting question about, for example, do you use somebody's name, a woman's name if she's been a victim? You know, a murder victim - news organizations do not withhold the identity of the victim until except for the question of notifying the family members immediately. But in rape, you know, there's long been this question of, you know, is there shame attached? Are there privacy issues?

You know, in an earlier coverage, decades previous, there was often this question of what might she have done to attracted this kind of sexual attention as opposed to what occurred that - what crime did somebody commit that ended in this kind of violence for which is what people now view sexual assault and rape to be.

The notion of describing her garb plays into that a little bit, particularly when there's not the context of who she was. You know, the second story, they say she was an outgoing honor student, brimming with enthusiasm, until this incident happened.

NEARY: And, of course, it made you wonder how they managed to find, you know -they found the parents. They talked to the parents. They learned much more about the girl's background when they went back there for that second story, which did, of course, in my mind raise questions about, well, why couldn't they've done that the first time.

FOLKENFLIK: Well, indeed. I mean, the incident occurred, you know, the investigation began just after Thanksgiving. The incident clearly occurred some months ago. And at the same time, the Times weighed in on this at the point at which it was starting to get a lot more attention in the Texas press. They may not be giving themselves as much time to report that as they did certainly this second story several weeks later.

NEARY: We're talking with the NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik about the controversy over The New York Times' coverage of an alleged sex assault of a young girl. We have posted links to the original story that ran in The Times and the follow up piece, as well as the public editor's response. And you can find all those at npr.org. And if you'd like to join the conversation, the number is 800-989-8255. And you are listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And we're going to go to Adam who is calling from Delaware. Hi Adam. Hi, Adam. Are you there?

ADAM (Caller): Yes.

NEARY: Hi. Go ahead.

ADAM: I just think they should, you know, they should cover the whole story. I don't mean they need to get into that, you know, the whole nitty-gritty. But, I mean, people want to know. I mean, I think that the assailants should be listed, you know? They shouldn't have any privacy. Because, I mean, it doesn't matter if the girl is walking around, what she's wearing, 11 is 11 and that's wrong, you know?

To try I mean, it sounds like they're trying to say, well, she's asking for it, which, I mean, she's just trying kids just want to grow up fast and they do. So, I mean, to walk around like that, it's not unheard of in today's society. But, I mean, a gang rape is out of the question, but they should cover the full story.

NEARY: Yeah. Thanks so much for your call, Adam.

ADAM: Bye.

NEARY: You know, the age of this victim, David, of course, makes it all the more sensitive because, you know, somebody referred to her as a young woman, they said, you know, 11 is not a young woman. It's a child, really. We're talking about a child.

FOLKENFLIK: That's right. That's right. She's a child. She's, you know, doesn't know even really who she wants to grow up to be. You know, this is there's no circumstance in which one can say, oh, well, there's a mitigating factor. There has to be a presumption of innocence. But interestingly, so much of this of the investigation has been based on videos and cell phone videos taken of the incident by some of the participants in it, that the quotes that, at least, I've seen in the Texas press talking about this from a defense attorney, talk about saying she wasn't enslaved. She wasn't the unwilling participant people might think. The defense does not appear affirmatively at least so far to be this incident did not take place.

NEARY: And something else that actually we haven't touched on yet and that is that there is a racial component to this story that has become something of a controversy.

FOLKENFLIK: Right. And it's very complicating. The Times, for example, in that second story mentions that she's the daughter of Mexican immigrants and mentions the rather, you know, that she comes from - clearly signals she comes from a home without much financial wherewithal whatsoever.

The community itself has much - not necessarily all, but much of the community has rallied around the young men who stand accused. And all of the men who are accused, according to Texas Press reports, are African-American. The Times chose not to refer to that.

And in a sense, you know, news editors have wrestled, as they wrestled with how to report sexual assault and rape, they've wrestled with how to report about crime and racial identity of suspects in crime, is it relevant to the attack.

It's been, in some ways, made part of the story by activists who have come to town and said, you know, are investigators targeting these young men because they're African-American. And there seems to be that component emerging in a somewhat consequential way.

NEARY: Let's take a call from Greg(ph). He's calling from California. Hi, Greg.

GREG (Caller): Yeah, hey there.

NEARY: Go ahead.

GREG: I'm a former journalist who was constantly proofread by people harassing me about all kinds of tiny details, so I was kind of stunned that this wasn't caught by the journalist's editor. Why - The New York Times has a big responsibility here between the time the copy arrived and the time it went to press.

NEARY: I was wondering the same thing, David. It occurred to me, you know, how did this get past the editor?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, you know, as with all really good journalism, it's actually -despite there being a byline or a single correspondent at the microphone - it's always a team effort. I think on this one, if you have the executive editor calling it ham-handed and saying you have to do a make-up story that ends up on the top of the front page, you know, that's what we call, that day, a team loss. That the side didn't quite live up to perhaps the standards it hopes to exemplify.

You know, that said, the paper has stood by its initial story, but it said it wanted to go back and offer more context and detail.

NEARY: All right. Thanks so much for your call, Greg. Let's go Elise(ph). She's calling from Ann Arbor, Michigan. Hi, Elise.

ELISE (Caller): Hi. I just have one comment, and your previous caller actually summed it up for me. But just being aghast that The New York Times would actually put something like this on, putting the child, who is the victim, and not focusing on her. Not focusing - focusing on these boys who clearly had a choice. No matter how she was dressed, no matter what her mother put her in, these boys had a choice and they made the wrong one. The girl is the one who ultimately suffers the most.

NEARY: All right. Thank you so much for your call, Elise.

ELISE: Thank you.

NEARY: You know, clearly, David, you know, just to sum it up, I mean, we've been talking about the challenges of reporting on these kinds of very volatile, difficult kinds of crimes with so much emotion and passion around them, there's a lot more work journalists have to do in this area. Even though things have changed, there's still work to be done.

FOLKENFLIK: Well, I think that everyday involves choices in language, choices in approaches to stories, choices in what voices are heard, choices in what voices you don't hear, and that, you know, it's a constant struggle and a constant pursuit to get the right ones in the story.

NEARY: All right, David, thanks so much for joining us.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet.

NEARY: David Folkenflik is NPR's media correspondent. And again, we've posted links to both the original story in The Times and this week's follow-up report as well as the response from The New York Times' public editor. That's all at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary.

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