The Steubenville Rape Case: A Conversation

With one week to go before the scheduled trial, tensions are flaring in Steubenville, Ohio. Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter Rachel Dissell, who has been covering the controversial case involving the Steubenville High football team, recently spoke to the Dart Center's executive director Bruce Shapiro.

In August of 2012, reporter Rachel Dissell of the Cleveland Plain Dealer received a phone call from the eastern Ohio town of Steubenville: “There’s been a rape, and the victim’s family says it involves the football team.” Dissell drove two-and-a-half hours to Steubenville, in the Ohio Valley at the junction of Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania.

On September 2, the Plain Dealer featured Dissell’s account of a football game between Steubenville High School’s Big Red and a Cleveland rival: “Police had arrested two sophomore starters just days before and charged them with kidnapping and raping a 16-year-old girl from a town just across the river in West Virginia.”

Dissell (winner of the 2008 Dart Award for coverage of teenage dating violence) was the first journalist from outside the Ohio Valley to report on the case. Her initial story explored not just the charges against those two players, but online boasting by numerous teammates, and accusations of public officials colluding to cover up the case in a tight-knit, football-obsessed town. Her reporting elevated Steubenville to a national flashpoint, and led to cascade of attention to the case ranging from The New York Times to the hacker collective Anonymous, whose members recovered and posted videos and other previously-deleted social-media evidence.

With the two alleged rapists scheduled for trial in juvenile court in February, Dissell’s reporting remains the pacesetter – tracking, as she says, “so many moving parts,” ranging from recovered videos of teenagers implicated in the assault to how this small-town case illuminates national debate over the Violence Against Women Act.

In reporting this complicated story of a small-town rape, what has been the greatest challenge?

We're trying to constantly be mindful of the 16-year-old who is at the center of all of this. She did not get a choice about whether to be the subject of all this attention. Part of the story is balancing the perception of this incident as a larger catalyst for change, with how things are going to affect this one 16-year-old girl.

Steubenville is a town of 18,000, a long drive from Cleveland. What first grabbed your attention and persuaded you to devote time to it?

There were a huge number of young men, and a few women, who were brazenly talking online about what had happened that night. The tone of their language, the things they were saying about the victim were so derogatory, and so uncaring about what had happened. There were a large number of young men, most of them student-athletes, who were bragging that this had been a rape, bragging that she was unconscious. They were bragging about urinating on her. They were bragging about taking her from party to party. They were calling her a whore.

And this young lady had no recollection of most of the night. From the way she tells the story, investigators are pretty sure she was drugged: she passed out so quickly. These guys tweeted about it, distributed videos, took pictures. Somebody even sent one of the pictures to her father. And pretty much most of the town knew about what had happened before it was ever reported to the police. That was what immediately grabbed my attention.

You've reported before about abused teenagers, and about perpetrators. But this time social media and internet issues permeate the story. How has this affected your reporting?

It's been hard to keep up with, because the social media is so fast-moving. For instance, I had to do a lot of capturing of online material for our story in September.

There is a blogger, Alexandra Goddard, who has really good social media skills - she is a social media analyst in her other job. She also lived in Steubenville. Seeing the report in local papers and learning that it involved football players, she knew that this story was going to be made to go away. So she immediately went online and retrieved all of the digital evidence she could. She gave police some time to work. But once she saw that they were not going after the case in the way she thought they should, she started posting evidence online.

Early when I was looking at the story, someone shot me a note saying I should talk to her. So I did. She has much better computer and social media skills than I do so she was able to show me a couple of tricks to find things, and then to verify who someone was and that it was accurate.

Then in December the New York Times did their story, and it got the attention of a sector of the hacker group Anonymous. These members of Anonymous were so appalled with what had happened. And they really felt that the local police, and even the state investigators, didn't have the skills to uncover the truth of what happened. They felt the police were focusing on two guys who had committed a rape, but were not focusing on the larger group who had stood by or participated in a different way; weren't looking at adults who had hosted these parties; weren't looking at the people who had contributed to the culture of it.

How did hackers coming into the mix change things?

I've never dealt with a case where something like Anonymous has come in and started digging up information. As a reporter, it's hard. We have very clear lines, very bright lines - we know how we get our information, what we can use and what we can't. The members of Anonymous are digging up information and some of it seems valid. But sometimes if you don't know how they got it, you don't know how to consider it.

You have to keep up with their releases, but you can't just run as fast as they are and publish everything in a story because you don't know their methods. For instance in some of these cases they are hacking into people's emails. Those are huge ethical questions for me. And a portion of the information they are putting out may not be true. Anything that turns out to not be true will harm the case.

The folks that are doing the hacking believe there is a larger conspiracy in town to cover this up. Some of that may be true; some of it may be a little far-fetched. And some of it may just never be able to be proved. That is really hard as a reporter, because you want to dig as deep as possible, but you can't just start leaping over boundaries and standards that you have abided by for years. 

This is also a very difficult story in purely human terms.

This is really what we worry about: trying to figure out what situation the victim is in. How she was doing and how she felt about this.

Throughout my early reporting, I was having conversations with a sexual assault victim's advocate for the region. At first the victim's parents wanted no attention to the case. They wanted it to go away. She's their baby and they wanted to protect her. They knew what she had gone through and they were hesitant about the attention - which is completely understandable.

We had to weigh the larger issue of what was gong on there with how the coverage was going to affect her case, and affect her.

The victim, perpetrators and bystanders in this case are nearly all juveniles. How does that affect your reporting choices?

The Plain Dealer's policy is of course that we don't name victims of sexual assault. We also do not name juveniles who are charged with crimes, unless their cases are brought over to the adult court. These cases are still in juvenile court, so in the paper and online we are not naming any of these kids - even though under Ohio law the names are public, and everyone in town knows who they are.

For these young men's families it is tough. They feel they will not get a fair trial because of all the attention. But when you read what these young people said online you can't help but think, "You're the one who put this out there. We didn't come probing into your personal business or your computer. You were publicly putting this out there, where anyone in the world could read it. You were bragging about things. You were threatening people. It wasn't private." Up until the day those boys got arrested they were still publicly talking about this through Twitter.

Have any of the bystanders talked to you?

I had some conversations over Twitter with some of the kids who were at some of the parties. But none of the kids who were in the actual room. They all got lawyers very quickly.

You've now been covering this case for months. How has your understanding of what happened in Steubenville changed?

At first we were looking at this and thinking: this is about a football team, it's about a town where the football team thought they could get away with anything. Now when we look at it and step back, we see that this culture has been encouraged over time.

You do have people in the town who are starting to come to grips with it. At first everybody's impulse was to close ranks: we're Steubenville, we've done nothing wrong, you guys are being unfair, these are just kids. Now, the more that the story sinks in, the more people are starting to think that there does need to be some education, some change.

That’s what I keep looking at and keep asking: What will be the endgame? Will the school step up? Will they start to educate these kids on sexual activity, on what's consensual and what's not? Will the parents start to work on these children's attitudes towards each other - how they treat each other?

I do feel bad, because the football team has a whole lot of kids on it and not all of them were involved. But they were all part of this culture. You could see through what they posted on social media that for the most part they had no respect for women. Even outside of the rape situation, there were a lot of them making derogatory comments on a normal basis about women. A lot of the young women, too, were making comments about other girls and about themselves that would make you cringe.

And right now in Steubenville there isn't a single dime spent on rape prevention. A single part-time sexual-assault advocate serves the whole Ohio Valley area. So the bigger question is: After this trial, after the criminal phase is over - will there be any change?

In Steubenville, a lot of vitriol and threats have been directed at journalists. Have you felt any of that?

When we first went down there, many people said, "Get out of here, we don't want you in our business. Don't ask about this." When I first talked to the coach he was clearly not happy, but I think he also looked at me and thought, "This is just some girl from Cleveland, what is she going to do?" He wasn't quite as threatening as when the New York Times came around a few months later.

But I was really much more surprised at how the region's victim advocate had to walk on eggshells around town. She had to be careful what she said, and people were asking her all kinds of questions. She would sit in meetings with people she had known for years and they would be making victim-blaming statements. It was difficult for her because she was thinking: "These are people who should be supportive of victims, and here they are making statements about how they want this to go away."

What’s your perception of the Steubenville police?

I have to say that when it came to the police, they were as forthcoming as they could be. I think they’ve felt a lot of pressure. People think they're not doing a good enough job; they are saying, "We're doing the best we can with a very difficult case." This was one of the things we made sure to get into the first story:  the chief was so frustrated. He'd made public pleas for people to come forward for interviews. But parents would not bring their children in and would not come forward to be interviewed. He was baffled as to how a parent wouldn't do the right thing.

The criminal case goes to trial in February. Where do you think the story goes from here?

There are two things that I keep thinking about. The first:  Who was really involved with the larger situation? There's been a lot of speculation about whether kids were drinking at football coaches' houses. What privileges were these kids given that they felt they could do whatever they pleased? That's interesting in the short term.

In the long term, you have to be asking: for the young woman so horribly victimized at a party, what does justice mean in this case? I would even ask that of the folks at Anonymous. They want justice for this woman. But what does this mean? Does justice for one 16-year-old girl mean that people are convicted? Does it mean a light is shown on this, so that it doesn't happen again? Does it mean there are big steps taken and commitments made to change the culture that even allows these parties to happen?

That is what is knocking around in my brain: What will justice mean in the end? What should it mean?