March 09, 2011

Transcription "Journalism" Fails on Rape

So...the New York Times put out an article about an eleven-year-old girl who was gang raped in Texas. Well, actually, the article wasn't about her. It's about how all these people around the event were devastated by it. You know, the guys who did it (who helpfully created pictorial and video evidence such that the question of innocence is largely moot):

“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.”

And the town:

“It’s devastating, and it’s really tearing our community apart,” she said. “I really wish that this could end in a better light.”

And the mother, who clearly bears more blame than the rapists:

“Where was her mother? What was her mother thinking?” said Ms. Harrison, one of a handful of neighbors who would speak on the record. “How can you have an 11-year-old child missing down in the Quarters?”

And the community institutions:

Churches have held prayer services for the victim. The students who were arrested have not returned to school, and it is unclear if they ever will.

But not the victim. Well, not unless you consider this:

They said she dressed older than her age, wearing makeup and fashions more appropriate to a woman in her 20s. She would hang out with teenage boys at a playground, some said.

I'm not going to go into everything that's wrong with this article. It's horrid through and through, and Mae McClelland at Mother Jones has made a good start in pointing out how. For the moment, I'd rather talk about why.

If you look at the major failures of the Times article, you can see that they mostly don't come from the reporter. Not surprising. It's incredibly easy to find people saying idiotic things about rape and very, very difficult to get it through to them that there is a better strategy than talking when they don't know what they're talking about.

But you know what? We know that. We've known for decades that most people get things wrong about crime, and we sure as hell know that they're worse on the topic of rape. We know that people misassign blame. We know that they tend to treat perpetrators as something short of criminals. We know that there's a lot of special pleading that goes on that makes what happened "not really rape."

That, my dear friends, is why we employ experts. We employ them in training law enforcement personnel, because they don't get rape on their own. We employ them to talk to juries in rape cases, because juries don't know what constitutes evidence of consent or trauma on their own. We employ them to set up programs to prevent rape and to deal with the aftermath, because rape is so entwined in our culture that very few of us really understand all of what we're looking at when we look at rape.

We don't--I emphasize--do not let any old schmuck off the street do any of that. Never. We just don't. Because they get it wrong, as this article demonstrates so thoroughly.

This "reporter" did just that, though. He took exactly what the average idiot on the street told him and reported it as though it were somehow relevant to the matter at hand. The matter at hand being the gang rape of a pre-teen. In a situation that causes any other kind of responsible professional to go the experts, this guy just printed what he was told. His editor, supposedly another professional, allowed it.

Unfortunately, that's what all too much "journalism" is looking like these days: transcription with no value added. Which is not to say that transcription has no value. Instead it has roughly the same value as the sources transcribed, making it all the more important that the reporters and editors involved be professional in choosing their sources.

It isn't hard to find an expert on the topic of rape. It isn't hard to find someone willing to point out that adult clothes don't make adult choices or that even if they did "or we'll beat you up" isn't a choice. It isn't hard to find someone willing to tell you that the only newsworthy question about the victim is "Is she being taken good care of?" (The answer is likely to be less simple, but it usually is.) It isn't hard to find someone who can point out that rape cases make communities uncomfortable because they put reality in direct conflict with comfortable, familiar myth on many levels.

It isn't hard to turn the idiotic words of a few willing mouths into a lesson on the realities of rape, even if you're not willing to take responsibility for debunking the myths in your own voice. And it desperately, consistently needs to be done. That it wasn't done in this article is a failure of insight, it's a failure of professionalism, and it's a failure of journalism. It needs to be fixed.

Go sign the petition to tell them so.


Heather M. Rosa said...

Almost makes "Jay-Walking" comments sound sensible.

Greg Laden said...

This community would have been so much better off is only the boys' guilt could have remained ambiguous. Next time, perhaps things will work out that way.

But seriously, in further thinking about this sort of thing, you may wan to look into false accusations and the role they play in the social angst that converts a rape victim into a villain.

Think Tucker Carlson, Dan Abrams the Duke Lacrosse Team case and the "logic" of GA State Rep. Bobby Franklin.

Stephanie Zvan said...

Greg, I didn't tell you I have two papers on the topic to blog (hopefully this weekend), did I? I'm pretty sure I hadn't mentioned it.

But yeah, I'm on that.