The XX Factor

What’s Fair in Rape-Trial Coverage?

Over at the Ms. Magazine blog, a writer is trying to argue -poorly, I think-that the New York Times recent coverage of the so-called “rape cops” trial is yet more evidence of the newspaper’s habit of “blaming the victim” in rape cases. Blogger Stephanie Hallett recalls the recent controversy over the Times’ initial coverage of the alleged gang rape of an 11-year-old girl in East Texas, which stirred plenty of criticism, including from us here at DoubleX and from the Times’ own ombudsman and executive editor . A follow-up story on the Texas case was much more careful.

But the Times ’ coverage of the alleged cop rape of a drunken Manhattan woman in December 2008 doesn’t warrant criticism, which may help explain why Hallett’s petition to “End The NY Times Practice of ‘Trial by Newspaper’!” has thus far garnered fewer than 400 signatures. (By contrast, when the paper published its troubling account of the Texas gang rape, a petition on criticizing the story quickly amassed more than 40,000 signers.)

The Ms. blogger argues that the Times was wrong to point out where the prosecution’s case against police officers Kenneth Moreno and Franklin Mata may falter. (Moreno is accused of raping the woman while Mata acted as a lookout.) Specifically, the paper recently wrote that “the prosecution’s case may rely heavily on the credibility of a woman who was admittedly drunk at the time she says she was sexually assaulted, and cannot recall large portions of the evening.” Hallett writes in response:

If a woman’s “credibility” is publicly questioned because she was drunk when she was assaulted, it sends a message to attackers that they can get away with raping drunk women, and it sends a message to such victims that their stories won’t be believed.

Actually, the credibility of alleged victims and alleged perpetrators and witnesses is at issue in all sorts of cases. That’s the point of a trial-a jury assesses the trustworthiness of testimony, looks at physical evidence , evaluates wiretapped conversations , and so on. An alleged victim’s memory on the night in question seems directly relevant.

The Ms. blogger suggests that the Times story amounts to “the media … sending women the message that a drunk victim can’t really be raped.” That’s not what’s going on here. Rather, there are a whole mess of reasons why rape may be hard to prove in a court of law. The victim being drunk might be one of them. That’s infuriating. But it’s not the fault of the New York Times .