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

Striking parallels between a rape case from almost exactly thirty years ago and the Steubenville case make for a good opportunity to assess how reporting on rape has changed—or not.

Striking parallels between a rape case from exactly thirty years ago and Steubenville make for a good opportunity to assess how much reporting on rape has improved in the span of one generation. Newspaper image via Shutterstock

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.