In some ways, the Torrington, CT case that ricocheted through the press last week looks a lot like the ugly spectacle in Steubenville, OH. Two football players stand accused of rape. Their fellow students have taken to Twitter to bash one of the victims, calling her a “whore” and a “snitch,” and blaming her for ruining the players’ lives. The “hacktivist” collective, Anonymous, has jumped into the fray, promising to dredge up evidence and publicly humiliate the cyber-bullies.
But this time the local paper has beaten Anonymous to the punch. In a story last Wednesday, Torrington’s Register Citizen broke the news of the victim shaming. Unlike reporters covering Steubenville, who have been careful not to identify the victim’s online tormentors, the Torrington paper printed screen shots of the tweets—complete with pictures, Twitter handles, and names. A number of national media followed suit, after which students whose tweets were published were inundated with ugly, profanity-laced messages.
Some people no doubt find it gratifying to see the tables turned on the hecklers. But is it fair to subject minors—even those who behave badly—to this type of humiliation? Reporters generally use special care when reporting on children and teenagers. As a rule, most news organizations don’t publish the names of juvenile criminal defendants on the theory that people shouldn’t be stuck with a life-long stigma for youthful errors in judgment.
Then again, most criminal defendants don’t broadcast their misdeeds on Twitter.
Matt DeRienzo, the group editor for the Journal Register Company’s Connecticut publications, including The Register Citizen, says one key reason editors chose to print the tweets was that they were already public. “I don’t think there is a hard and fast rule that no one under the age of 18 should ever be named in a newspaper for doing something bad,” he adds. “We’ve become more and more cautious about doing that over the years, but we will if it serves an important journalistic purpose.”
In this case, that purpose was at least partly to pressure local school officials to confront what DeRienzo sees as a culture of violence and bullying, especially among football players. The paper has been grappling with the issue since last October, when it came to light that four football players had been suspended after a locker-room hazing incident. School officials were remarkably stingy with information about it. Superintendent Cheryl F. Kloczko acknowledged that something had happened and said two “agencies” were investigating. But she and other district officials refused to reveal any other particulars, including the names of the agencies involved.
Then, earlier this month, The Register Citizen’s courts and education reporter, Jessica Glenza, happened to notice the names of two 18 year olds who had been charged with sexually assaulting two 13-year-old girls were also on the 2012 varsity football-team roster. (Police have since arrested a third alleged perpetrator, and are now describing the incident as statutory rape.) By this point, the Steubenville case was making bold-faced headlines. DeReinzo and his fellow editors began wondering whether what they were seeing was part of a pattern of ugly behavior by high school athletes. So they urged Glenza to cross-reference the statewide pending criminal docket with varsity football rosters.
What Glenza found was eye opening: One of the suspects in the sexual assault case—an 18-year-old football star named Edgar Gonzalez—had also been arrested, along with a former teammate, on felony robbery and assault charges after allegedly jumping three younger students in March 2012. While the coach at the time was aware of the situation, Gonzalez was allowed to keep playing football and was later named the team’s Most Valuable Player.
When Glenza confronted school officials about the hazing, robbery, and assaults, they insisted these were isolated incidents rather than signs of a deeper cultural problem. “These things happen everywhere,” Athletics Director Mike McKenna told her. “We’re not any different than any other community.”
Glenza and her colleagues then began scouring Twitter to get the student body’s read on these incidents, which is how they unearthed the tweets attacking the alleged rape victim. They also started pressing school officials for information on how they handled bullying and hazing generally. They ran into a brick wall. Officials refused to even disclose the name of the person in charge of Torrington High’s anti-bullying program. (Connecticut law requires every school to have an anti-bullying protocol and appoint an official to oversee it).