CNN's Steubenville Coverage Focuses On Effect Rape Trial Will Have On Rapists, Not Victim

Trent Mays, 17, left, and co-defendant 16-year-old Ma'lik Richmond sit in court before the start of the third day of their tr
Trent Mays, 17, left, and co-defendant 16-year-old Ma'lik Richmond sit in court before the start of the third day of their trial on rape charges in juvenile court on Friday, March 15, 2013 in Steubenville, Ohio. Mays and Richmond are accused of raping a 16-year-old West Virginia girl in August of 2012. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic, Pool)

CNN's coverage of the verdict in the Steubenville rape case appeared to be curiously weighted on Sunday, focusing on the effect the guilty verdict would have on the lives of the now-convicted rapists and their families, rather than that of the victim and her family.

Steubenville High School football players Trent Mays, 17, and Ma'lik Richmond, 16, were accused of raping a severely intoxicated 16-year-old West Virginia girl who also attends the Ohio school. Thousands of text messages introduced in the case presented a picture of teens swapping graphic stories about the assault.

In a Sunday afternoon segment, anchor Fredricka Whitfield followed the straight news of the guilty verdict (which she described as rape occurring "after a night of heavy partying") by showing the rapists' parents' weeping in court. Footage of Richmond, his mother and father offering emotional appeals to the victim's family dominated the segment.

Whitfield threw the story to reporter Poppy Harlow, but not before reiterating that Mays and Richmond's "family members tried their hardest to plead for some forgiveness from the victim's family, as well as from the judge."

To her credit, Harlow appeared to try and correct the segment's tone: "That's true Fredricka," she said of the tears of the convicted rapist's families, "but this is an incredibly serious crime, it's the crime of rape."

And yet, the effects of the rape on the victim seemed to be an afterthought: "It was incredibly emotional, it was difficult for anyone in there to watch those boys break down," Harlow said. "[It was] also difficult, of course, for the victim's family."

"Also difficult, of course?" Over the course of the segment, CNN twice aired Richmond's father's appeal for forgiveness in full and also included footage from an interview in which Harlow asks Richmond if it's true that he told Ma'like he loved him for the first time after the verdict came down. The father emotionally explained that he blames himself for the incident because he wasn't "around" enough. "I want to stress that parents need to get involved more in their kids' lives," Nathaniel Richmond said.

CNN did air the entirety of the victim's mother's statement on the verdict, but that came after the tears of the Richmond, his mother and father.

The Sunday afternoon segment was hardly the first time CNN had fumbled its coverage of the case. Earlier on Sunday, anchor Candy Crowley expressed her deepest sympathies for Mays and Richmond.

Harlow set up the scene, which she said was "incredibly difficult" to watch, thusly: "These two young men -- who had such promising futures, star football players, very good students -- literally watched as they believed their life fell apart."

"What's the lasting effect though on two young men being found guilty juvenile court of rape essentially?" Crowley asked CNN's legal analyst Paul Callan.

The slant of the day's coverage was revealing in two capacities. First, CNN appears to have bet on the emotions of those it could show on camera -- for obvious reasons, the victim's identity has been protected, and the victim's family was not shown weeping in court. Networks know that people crying make for great TV. Secondly, it's telling that this tone continued over multiple segments, despite a cadre of tweets and blog posts deriding the network's earlier coverage.

Later on Sunday, Whitfield wrapped the first segment of her coverage on the case by describing it as "a heart-breaking case to watch, no matter how you look at it." That CNN can find so many ways to look at a rape trial is perhaps to blame for their embarrassing and damaging coverage.

Correction: This post incorrectly attributed the quote describing the courtroom scene as "incredibly difficult" to Candy Crowley and has since been corrected to note that the quote comes from Poppy Harlow.


Others noticing CNN's faulty coverage: