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Steubenville rape trial: why media came under fire – and what is at stake

The Steubenville rape trial had already sounded an alarm over the use of new media. But in their rush to cover the verdict in the sensitive case, mainstream media, too, were found wanting.

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Jefferson County Sheriff Fred Abdalla talks to members of the media and protesters after the verdict in the rape trial of Trent Mays and Ma'lik Richmond was announced in Steubenville, Ohio, Sunday.

Jason Cohn/Reuters

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Just as the Steubenville rape trial has highlighted the need for the responsible use of new media, the mainstream media’s coverage of the sensitive case has also fallen short, adding to a record level of mistrust for national media, say a range of industry watchdogs.

The story involves two minor boys, star athletes who were convicted over the weekend of raping a 16-year-old girl during a night of drunken partying in August.

Social media images from that night went viral – one 12-minute video made by another participant full of graphic descriptions of the night has garnered nearly 1.2 million hits.

But in rushing to cover the verdict, at least two major cable outlets have come under fire for serious on-air missteps.

Fox News has been widely criticized for crossing what most media regard as a clear-cut line by using the underage victim’s name on air.

But CNN, the flagship of 24-hour news, has also become the target of widespread online outrage for its extended coverage following the verdict. In various segments, respected CNN anchor Candy Crowley discussed the verdict with her team of reporters and analysts, using words such as “tragedy” to describe the impact – not on the young victim – but on the lives of the two convicted boys.

Reporter Poppy Harlow said, it was “incredibly difficult even for an outsider like me to watch what happened as these two young men that had such promising futures, star football players, very good students, literally watched as they believe their life fell apart.”

The discussion continued along these lines, including legal analysis of the permanent requirement to register as sex offenders.  There were no comments from the victim or from rape advocacy groups.

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