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The story quickly climbed The Times’s “most emailed” list but not just because of the sensational facts of the crime involved. “Vicious Assault Shakes Texas Town,” published on Tuesday, reported the gang rape by 18 boys and men of an 11-year-old girl in the East Texas town of Cleveland.
The viral distribution of the story was, at least in part, because of the intense outrage it inspired among readers who thought the piece pilloried the victim.
My assessment is that the outrage is understandable. The story dealt with a hideous crime but addressed concerns about the ruined lives of the perpetrators without acknowledging the obvious: concern for the victim.
While the story appeared to focus on the community’s reaction to the crime, it was not enough to simply report that the community is principally concerned about the boys and men involved – as this story seems to do. If indeed that is the only sentiment to be found in this community – and I find that very hard to believe – it becomes important to report on that as well by seeking out voices of professional authorities or dissenting community members who will at least address, and not ignore, the plight of the young girl involved.
Let’s consider the particulars:
The story by James C. McKinley Jr. reported that residents of the town noted the girl dressed “older than her age,” wore makeup and fashions “more appropriate to a woman in her 20s” and hung out with older boys at the playground.
The story also quoted one resident, saying, “Where was her mother? What was her mother thinking?”
Referring to some of the defendants in the case, the same resident was quoted saying, “These boys have to live with this the rest of their lives.”
The fourth paragraph of the story laid out the basic themes of the story:
The case has rocked this East Texas community to its core and left many residents in the working-class neighborhood where the attack took place with unanswered questions. Among them is, if the allegations are proved, how could their young men have been drawn into such an act?
These elements, creating an impression of concern for the perpetrators and an impression of a provocative victim, led many readers to interpret the subtext of the story to be: she had it coming.
The Times, responding to a wave of complaints, issued a statement Wednesday saying, “Nothing in our story was in any way intended to imply that the victim was to blame. Neighbors’ comments about the girl, which we reported in the story, seemed to reflect concern about what they saw as a lack of supervision that may have left her at risk.”
The statement went on: “As for residents’ references to the accused having to ‘live with this for the rest of their lives,’ those are views we found in our reporting. They are not our reporter’s reactions, but the reactions of disbelief by townspeople over the news of a mass assault on a defenseless 11-year-old.”
Philip Corbett, standards editor for The Times, told me earlier today that the story focused on the reaction of community residents and that there was no intent to blame the victim. He added, “I do think in retrospect we could have done more to provide more context to make that clear.”
The Associated Press handled the story more deftly, I think. Its piece on the crime also noted the community view that the girl dressed provocatively and even the view of some that the girl may have been culpable somehow. But the AP also quoted someone in the community saying: “She’s 11 years old. It shouldn’t have happened. That’s a child. Somebody should have said, ‘What we are doing is wrong.’”
The Times, I have been told, is working on a followup story. I hope it delves more deeply into the subject because the March 8 story lacked a critical balancing element. If upon further reporting it is found that the community of Cleveland, Tex., universally believes that the 11-year-old girl was culpable in this crime, then that would be remarkable indeed. But if it proved to be the case, The Times should take care to interview mental health and legal experts who can provide context to a story about a vicious sex crime against a young girl.
I don't really have the energy to explain why I find this answer unsatisfying (blog post; lack of apology still blaming the mother; Someone should have said "this is wrong" because she was 11 - so if she was 21 it would've been okay?) but at least they heard that the tone of their article isn't acceptable and they're backtracking. I guess that's a win?