Kate Bramson: Rallying Around Rapists

As the Steubenville sexual assault case takes the spotlight, a Dart Award-winning journalist looks back on another small-town rape case involving a high school athlete.

Reading from afar about the Steubenville rape case, I am struck by how much the world has changed in the few short years since I reported on a teen rape case in rural Rhode Island. My 2003 story for The Providence Journal, “Rape in a Small Town,” detailed how the case divided a small town. Many townspeople had rallied around the boy accused of raping a girl from the local high school, standing behind his family, who had lived in town for generations, and turning against the girl and her family, who were still considered newcomers after living in town for a number of years.

This case in Steubenville starkly demonstrates how much social media has altered all of our lives. It is playing out on the Internet -- via Twitter and YouTube – and with videos and pictures captured with smart phones that were not available a decade ago. It’s so easy now for people to record what’s going on around them and then to share it instantly with friends via texts or e-mails and, far more broadly, with the masses via Twitter and YouTube. And then, even if the original photographer or videographer has deleted the images, they may live on forever on other people’s Facebook sites and on others’ cell phones. All this accessibility raises the stakes for reporters today covering such sensitive topics. When I reported on the rape in Burrillville, no other reporters were investigating the case, I wasn’t posting updates on Twitter and I worked for six months interviewing people in the community, poring over court documents and learning as much as I could before we published a comprehensive piece about the rape’s impact on the young girl and her family.

Although I had been working as a journalist for about a decade when I began the Rhode Island rape story, I was new to The Journal. The boy had been charged with the crime before I worked for the newspaper, and my involvement in the story began the day the police department I had just started covering issued a statement that a trial had ended with the boy’s conviction. I wrote a story that day and later covered the sentencing in court – the first time I met anyone involved in the case beyond the police. That’s a key point that’s not lost on me today. I know that my coverage didn’t affect the outcome of the case in any way. The trial was over before I knew about it, and I can’t help but think now how much the pre-trial coverage in Steubenville is likely to alter the outcome of the case, whatever the decision. I knew, as I was reporting, that I didn’t need to solve the case. The boy had been tried in a court of law and had been found guilty, so I was focused more on the impact of the crime and not on trying to determine whether a case might hold up in court. I began working on my in-depth story after writing the daily story about the sentencing.

Now, journalists covering these types of cases have an entirely new angle to consider – how much of the reporting should be published on the Web to last forever? My story ran in our newspaper and online, but without any additional bells and whistles that we likely would have published online just a few years later. For example, court records I obtained included more than 100 letters that community members wrote to the judge, urging leniency for the boy. My editor and I pored over those letters, painstakingly pulling out a few of the most salient quotes for the story – and those people were furious that we had published something they wrote to a judge and thought would remain private. We never considered publishing all of the letters in print, because we didn’t have the space, and in 2003, it simply didn’t occur to us to publish additional content on the web. Within a few years, my newspaper’s online philosophy changed so dramatically that if it happened today, we likely would have uploaded every letter and every police record we had of the crime to our website.

But even that effort would have paled in comparison to the robust debates we have in my newsroom today about how to handle the always-expanding amounts of information we find on social media. Last year, as we covered a major story on an entirely separate issue, we wrestled with whether to trust the LinkedIn account of someone who refused to grant us an interview because it indicated she had just left a major company that was collapsing. We vehemently discussed whether we could trust that and link to it, as well as link to Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, etc. These conversations must be handled on a case-by-case basis and must weigh whether it’s possible to verify that the source has updated an account or if the account might have been hacked. In the Steubenville case, I can only imagine that newsroom discussions about whether to publish someone’s Tweet that read “Song of the night is definitely Rape Me by Nirvana” or whether to link to a YouTube video of someone talking about a rape at a high school party must have been heated.

The Steubenville case raises other key points for me. Before I began working on my story, I thought our society had progressed further and was less quick to blame the victim, but I found that old stereotypes about this crime persist. As I worked further, I thought perhaps the way people rallied around the hockey player in a tiny town that glorified his sport was the response of a tight-knit, small town. But once the story published, I was inundated with letters, phone calls and e-mails from women who said that they, too, had been raped and had experienced the same brutal re-victimization from their own communities – and what truly surprised me is that those women came from all over America. They weren’t just from small towns, but they had lived in big cities, also, where even more residents had rallied around the rapist and against the survivors of the crime. I realized our views about this crime have not progressed nearly as much as I thought they had.

Not until after I published my piece did I read the remarkable book by Bernard Lefkowitz, “Our Guys,” which detailed how another community – this one an affluent New Jersey suburb – rallied around the popular high school athletes accused of gang-raping a young girl with severe developmental disabilities in March 1989.

And I’m struck by the fact that the crimes and accusations differ, that the communities vary, but the response in our country 24 years later remains the same. Our boys can’t do this, communities cry out. In Steubenville, we don’t know the outcome yet. But past cases have shown us that this crime persists, and that when it is perpetrated by popular high school athletes, communities don’t want to believe it could be true. We may read about the brutal rape on a bus in India these days that led to a young woman’s death and think that America has come so much further, but this crime continues here, too.

I’m convinced that unless we change the perception in society of who’s capable of committing rape, other reporters, a decade from now and every year in between, will be writing more stories about communities rallying around their sports heroes who have been accused of this crime. The communities will differ, the details will vary, but the gut reaction that our heroes couldn’t have done this will remain.

Follow Kate on Twitter: @JournalKate

Read Kate's Dart Award-winning story

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