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

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Within a day at least three online petitions reacting to CNN’s coverage sprang up, calling it “awful” and calling for redress. By Tuesday the petitions had gathered some 200,000 signatures. The verdict that the judge handed down was justice – not a "tragedy," one petition reads, adding, “the tragedy was the rape. Please apologize and make this right.”

CNN executives have spoken anonymously to trade outlet The Wrap, defending Ms. Harlow, but have not officially responded to the petitions. CNN also has not answered Monitor requests for comment. But, say media watchers, there is a cautionary tale for all broadcast media in this moment.

“It used to be that if you made mistakes, you had consequences for them. People lost their jobs, and faith was somewhat restored, ” says former ABC and CBS newsman John Goodman, now a public relations professional in New York. But now, he says, the pressures on commercial media are driving down traditional journalistic standards to the point where mistakes are made and nothing happens. “We all just move on.”

With trust in the media at an all-time low, he adds, mainstream outlets cannot afford to lose more viewers over instances such as these.

TV news is driven by visuals, points out Robert Thompson, founder of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University in New York. “As newsroom budgets are slashed, the story that arises from wherever the visuals are most compelling is the narrative that will dominate,” he points out. “The courtroom with the two boys and their families is where the cameras were pointed,” says Prof. Thompson.

“This was the drama that was unfolding at the moment that the verdict was read, and this is the narrative that was being captured,” he says, noting that the victim in a highly sensitive case such as this is not present. So unless the media outlet makes a conscious effort to balance the coverage, he adds, “her story is not part of the narrative.”

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