Plenty of work has gone into advocating change in laws and attitudes when it comes to rape. The media plays a crucial role in this process as it “influences beliefs about the nature of rape offenses and victims” (Ardovini-Brooker and Caringella-MacDonald 2002). Media coverage of rape trials has also shown how the courtroom becomes a “significant public site of struggle over meanings of rape” (Cuklanz 1996).
The rape case in the small town of Steubenville, Ohio, is one of the latest examples of a trial that sparked discussions about rape in the United States of America. Two teenage boys – both promising members of their high school football team – were accused of raping an unconscious 16-year-old girl (‘Jane Doe’). A photograph of her being carried between Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond was shared widely on social networks (Goddard 2013).
In a country that takes pride in sport and its athletes, reactions towards the rape was somewhat similar to that observed by Camille Nurka (2013, p. 49) when she studied fan reactions to rape claims made against Australian rugby players; reactions tended to “reproduce deeply disturbing misogynistic rape mythologies” that encouraged victim-blaming. Some of this played out in the media, where focus on the trial allowed various platforms to push their own ideology and framing of rape.
Considering the views of many conservative right-wingers on the issue of rape and violence against women – such as former US Representative Todd Akin’s comments about “legitimate rape” – one could say that the right-wing media has been an active participant in Cuklanz’s (1996) “struggle over meanings of rape.” This essay will seek to analyse the response of the right-wing media to the Steubenville rape trial, thus examining their role in the discussion of rape in the United States.
To examine the ways in which right-wing news outlets have discussed the Steubenville rape trial, two articles published on 17 March 2013 – the day the verdict was delivered – were selected from prominent right-wing platforms: Breitbart.com and Fox News. While Fox News provides reportage of news events, Breitbart.com publishes strong right-wing opinion pieces. A study of the two articles provides an opportunity to examine the way right-wing publications framed the verdict through reports and opinions.
Discourse analysis, defined by Norman Fairclough (1995, p. 16-17) as “an attempt to show systemic links between texts, discourse practices, and sociocultural practices”, will be used to look at these two articles. It allows researchers to analyse the way in which “language use in the media contributes to the ongoing production of social conceptions, values, identities and relations” (Deacon et al. 1999, p. 146). This would be useful in examining the ways in which rape is framed and discussed in Breitbart.com and Fox News.
Fox News – ‘Ohio high school football players found guilty of raping 16-year-old girl’
Fox News published a report from the Associated Press, but edited it to remove the names of Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond even though their names had not been suppressed in court proceedings and other media reports. This conscious attempt to protect the identities of the two defendants hints towards some measure of sympathy and a desire to shield them from public censure. This is even more significant considering that Fox News had accidentally revealed the name of the victim in their broadcast coverage (Edwards 2013), and raises the question of why Fox News took such care to protect the identities of the defendants when they did not with the victim.
While Fox News provided a summary of the trial, it focused on the reactions of the defendants and their families when it came to the delivery of the verdict.
“My life is over,” he said as he collapsed in the arms of his lawyer.
The excerpt above is an example of how the article covered the way the defendants “broke down in tears” when they heard a verdict, painting a picture that would invite sympathy for the two upset teenagers. Beyond a short quote from the victim’s mother, little mention is made of how the victim, her family and/or her supporters reacted to the verdict.
It was also mentioned twice in five paragraphs that the party had been “alcohol-fueled”, suggesting that alcohol was a major factor at play, perhaps even the only factor.
Another point highlighted was the use of text messages and social media. During sentencing, the judge advised reflection on how things are shared on social media. The article also mentioned that “[l]awyers noted during the trial how texts have seemed to replace talking on the phone for contemporary teens.” This diverts attention from sexual assault towards the supposed dangers of social media and text messaging, making it seem as if the major problem is that the teenagers had shared photos and comments of the assault on social networks, rather than the assault itself.
Breitbart.com – ‘Guilty Verdict in Steubenville Rape Case that Saw Anonymous Terrorize a Town’
Written by Lee Stranahan, the article mentions in its first paragraph that Mays and Richmond were found guilty, but focuses mainly on the actions of Anonymous, the mainstream media and the “left-wing blogosphere”.
No attention is given to what Mays and Richmond did, or to the welfare of the victim. Stranahan focuses on the actions of Anonymous and its involvement in drawing attention to Steubenville, describing the hacktivist group as an “internet lynch mob” leading the way to “terrorize” the town. This image – of a small Ohio town being ‘bullied’ by Anonymous, bloggers and the media – is played out again and again throughout the piece. On top of being ‘terrorised’, Steubenville is also portrayed as being “under siege”, where “townspeople faced a wave of protests, threats and harassment” because of the “devastating impact” of Anonymous’ actions.
Stranahan accuses Anonymous – and the media who reported on its activities – for spreading information irresponsibly. Characterising it as “massive media malpractice”, he writes that the “biased and sensationalist press” had spread “wild rumours”. He also quotes assistant prosecutor Frank Bruzzese as saying that the media had managed to “spin a tale from nothing”. However, he does not address the fact that there were other bloggers, like Alexandria Goddard (2013), who gathered and published information to ensure that the issue did not get swept under the carpet, and that the trial could potentially not have taken place if not for such online activism.
Stranahan also frames the issue in nationalist terms, depicting Anonymous as “anti-American anarchists”.
Why did a sexual assault that involved three drunken sixteen-year old in a small Ohio town became major news? The narrative that the media pushed is a mixture of an easy to explain premise: Friday Night Lights with rapists meets cultural Marxism, taking cues from academic radical feminism and just good old Red blooded hatred of the United States. Steubenville became a way to belittle middle-American values like ‘football culture’ and to promote the idea that America, distinct from the rest of the world, foments ‘rape culture.’
In the excerpt above Stranahan turns the issue into one about the United States. All those involved in highlighting the Steubenville case are portrayed as sensationalising the story because of “cultural Marxism”, “radical feminism” and “hatred of the United States” – terms that would ring alarm bells in the minds of right-wing readers. Anonymous and the media are then accused of “belitting middle-American values”, suggesting that patriotic Americans would not have turned a case from a small Ohio town into major news.
The discourses of both articles privilege and cater to the views of their audiences: conservative right-wingers. Fox News’ decision to protect the identities of Mays and Richmond could be interpreted as a sign of sympathy for the two boys, which readers may identify with. Stranahan’s article, which identifies the “football culture” as a “middle-American value”, will also speak to right-wing readers who may even be from small towns like Steubenville.
This discourse essentially plays down the seriousness of sexual assault in America, preferring to focus attention on other aspects, such as social media and online campaigning, framed as being dangerous or even unpatriotic. This is consistent with Cuklanz’s (2013, p. 49) study, where she argues that the “sense of shared community” that a sport like football brings can affect the ways that people respond to cases of rape involving the athletes.
Left out of the discourse, though, is the broader discussion of rape culture and attitudes towards women. Other writing about the Steubenville rape case has questioned the way the importance of football in small American towns has contributed to impunity for young athletes, or the lack of education about what constitutes rape (Goddard 2013, Penny 2013, Wetzel 2013). Neglecting this aspect of the issue does little to advance any discussion tackling rape and violence against women, which would explain why “progress against rape myths has been minimal at best” (Ardovini-Brooker and Caringella-Macdonald 2002, p. 17).
However, there are limitations to this piece of research and further study would be required before one can reach any conclusions about rape in the conservative right-wing media. A longer-term study, taking in a wider range of right-wing publications and writing, will allow for more conclusions to be drawn about the way the right-wing media has framed and approached the issue of rape over time.