After a jury found former Stanford student Brock Turner guilty of sexual assault, The Washington Post published an article that highlighted Turner’s accomplishments as an All-American swimmer. The article drew widespread condemnation from critics who argued the Post was irresponsibly emphasizing Turner’s swimming abilities rather than focusing on the crime he committed.
But the Post’s report isn’t an isolated incident -- it’s an example of a media tendency to treat high-profile sex offenders with kid gloves, even after they’ve been found guilty.
After two high school football players in Steubenville, Ohio, were found guilty of raping a minor, news outlets highlighted their athletic abilities and previously promising futures. After a former college football player in Oklahoma City was found guilty of raping multiple women as a police officer, media outlets highlighted his physical strength and athletic accomplishments.
News outlets don’t highlight these kinds of details by accident -- they do it because those details run counter to audiences’ expectations about what sex predators look like. People don’t expect sex predators to be successful, popular, rich, or white, so when someone like Brock Turner is found guilty, news outlets jump at the chance to tell a “fall from grace” story.
The problem with the “fall from grace” narrative is that it can make audiences naturally sympathetic towards offenders. Spend enough time hearing about someone’s athletic accomplishments or academic success, and you might start wondering, “How could someone so great have done something so awful?”
Taken to its extreme, that framing can produce coverage that ends up treating offenders like victims. The Washington Post’s write-up stated that Turner’s “extraordinary yet brief swim career is now tarnished, like a rusting trophy.” After the Steubenville verdict, CNN’s Poppy Harlow seemed to fixate on what impact the decision would have on the perpetrators, saying they “literally watched as they believed their life fell apart.”
That kind of sympathetic news coverage is arguably even more dangerous when a trial is still ongoing. Jurors are humans, and this kind of coverage doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Glowing reports about the accused’s prior accomplishments or reputation could influence the biases and assumptions that jurors bring in with them when they enter a courtroom.
The reality is that all crime reporting can be tricky -- people are innocent until proven guilty, and conflicting testimony means that news networks will always have to worry about sounding sympathetic to either side. But the coverage of Brock Turner’s case is a reminder that a bizarre double standard exists when it comes to high-profile sexual assault and rape reporting -- a double standard that almost works against victims who come forward.