The trouble with Torrington

A small-town paper calls out minors who bully a rape victim online. Is that fair game?

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).

Before running the cyber-bullying story, the editorial staff debated publishing screen shots of the tweets and whether to blot out users’ handles and pictures. In the end, they decided that revealing the hecklers identities would spark a much-needed debate about the culture of bullying and rape, and how some students and administrators were helping perpetuate it. As DeRienzo wrote on the Journal Register Company’s blog, Connecticut Newsroom, last Thursday:

By publishing the actual messages, we made this real in a way that writing a story about unnamed kids would not.

We gave the city, the state and the country a taste of how horrifying and uncomfortable it has been for two 13-year-old girls over the past month who can’t escape the bullying and the nasty comments whether they’re at school or online.

Vaguely summarizing this kind of bullying, identities protected, would have allowed the school district to continue to ignore the problem and the community to assume that it was “someone else’s kid.”

But the fact is that “good kids,” from “good homes”—honor roll students, athletes, male, female—participated in this stuff, and showed a fundamental and staggeringly dangerous misunderstanding about rape, consent and how to treat other people.

The post was part of the paper’s broader policy of transparency. In 2010, the 7,000-circulation daily became the first news organization in the country to transform its newsroom into a public cafĂ©, with and coffee and pastries, and free public Wi-Fi. Torrington residents are free to roam the newsroom floor, attend daily story meetings, or sit around sipping lattes while reporters tap out their stories. (The New York Times describes the scene as a “sort of Starbucks meets ‘Lou Grant.’”)

Almost as soon as the tweets were published, the paper posted a message on its site urging Torrington residents to attend that afternoon’s editorial meeting for a discussion about “how the high school and community can begin to move forward.” While the paper received a stream of angry messages from students, most of the adults who attended the meeting or commented on the story were sympathetic to the victims, and wanted to find a way to deal with the issues raised in the story. “I’ve been very impressed by the reaction and the tenor of the discussion,” DeRienzo says. “There’s been recognition that there’s something wrong, which needs to be addressed.”

In other words, the paper’s reporting had the intended effect.

But as the story spread, the conversation grew more heated. Late Wednesday night, the self-anointed “hacktivist” collective Anonymous threw down its gauntlet, with an online missive warning that it could not “be held responsible for what happens” to anyone who bullies the victim:

If a bully pops up, it’s likely that some Anon is going to dox them, they’ll be called out on a national level, and for the rest of their lives whenever someone Googles their name you’ll see that they bullied a victim of rape.

Many of the Torrington students whose tweets were published shut down their Twitter accounts or switched the settings to private, but those who remained active were bombarded with angry messages.

Then, Thursday morning, DeRienzo published his blog post, explaining why the paper had chosen to expose the hecklers. This caught the attention of outside journalists, some of whom blasted DeRienzo’s decision on Twitter. Kelly McBride, an expert on media ethics at the Poynter Institute, argues the story could be highly damaging to the teens whose tweets were published, especially in a small town like Torrington. And, while she’s sympathetic to the paper’s goal of drawing attention to the cultural problems behind the bullying and alleged rape, she feels the paper’s decision unfairly “places this broader cultural problem on the backs of a select few.”

McBride is also troubled that Glenza didn’t contact people before publishing their tweets. After all, teenagers are known to pull pranks like hacking into each other’s Twitter accounts. “I counsel reporters on the best practices when using social media,” McBride says. “The very first best practice is verify, verify, verify.” She adds, “The graver the circumstances for the individual you’re attributing information to, the greater the obligation to ensure this person really exists, that they really said what you’re quoting them as saying, and that there isn’t some other context that you’re misreading.”

So far, though, no one has come forward to say they were wrongly identified. And, given that the tweeters were attacking a vulnerable 13-year-old victim—who unlike them, hadn’t chosen to make her claims public—some journalists in neighboring communities have applauded the paper’s choice. “While some might choose to criticize The Register Citizen for not blurring out the Twitter handles and the profile pictures in printing the screen shots, let me say ‘Bravo!’ to those in charge for putting it in our face and forcing us to have the argument,” columnist Jeff Jacobs wrote in Friday’s Hartford Courant. “It’s not a pretty thing to reprint tweets by those under 18, but it’s one-100th as ugly as the re-victimization that takes place” when victims are shamed and humiliated on Twitter.

It’s hard to argue with that logic.

Correction: The initial version of this post incorrectly stated that editors “urged Glenza to cross-reference the criminal blotter with varsity football rosters.” In fact, it was the statewide pending criminal docket that Glenza cross-referenced with football rosters. The relevant sentence has been corrected. CJR regrets the error.

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Mariah Blake writes for the United States Project, CJR's politics and policy desk. She is based in Washington, DC, and her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New Republic, Foreign Policy, Salon, The Washington Monthly, and CJR, among other publications. Tags: , , , , ,