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03/15/2013

Q&A: Bill Schiller on what the Steubenville story tells us about America

Mays and Richmond
Steubenville High School football players, Trent Mays (left) and Ma'Lik Richmond sit in juvenile court Thursday. The teens are accused of raping a 16-year-old girl. (Keith Srakocic/Reuters)

“We’re seeing a trend of high-school athletes following the bad behaviour of both their college and professional counterparts," says Kathy Redmond of the Denver-based National Coalition Against Violent Athletes, which aims to end off-field violence through education and counselling. 

 

In Steubenville, Ohio, two teen football players accused of sexually assaulting a 16-year-old girl stand trial this week in a story that has captivated a nation. The Toronto Star's Bill Schiller travelled to Steubenville to investigate this made-for-TV story of sport, booze and alleged sexual assault in small-town America. Bill's piece was published on March 9. Read it here.

Bill

Q: What was it that drew you to this story?

A: I am always looking for compelling stories that reveal America, stories that contribute to our knowledge of American anthropology if you will. I’m not looking for stories that speak to the nation’s history – but the beliefs, customs and values that arise out of compelling narratives. What do they tell us about the American moment? Steubenville is, at once, compelling and terrible: two teens, local high school football stars, stand accused of raping a teenage girl during a night of drunken partying in small town America. Without any question it is sensational – and many media have covered it that way, using the theme of ‘the divided town,’ which is legitimate enough. But I was pressed by an editor who wanted to know whether there was any deeper significance beyond the ‘controversy splits town’ story.

Q. And was there?

A: Yes. Data shows that America has a problem. A big problem. A 2011 study shows that one in five American women experience rape or attempted rape during their life time. But even more disturbing, one in five experience these attacks during their college or university years. I was stunned by that number, and then stumbled over the terrible tragedy of Lizzy Seeberg, a 19-year-old freshman who took her own life after she accused a University of Notre Dame football star of sexually assaulting her, only to discover that local authorities didn’t take her seriously.

Further, I learned that it isn’t just a problem confined to college. President Barack Obama’s Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, felt the problem of sexual assault in American high schools was serious enough to raise it in a speech in April 2011. He noted that there are 4,800 sexual assaults, rapes or attempted rapes there every year. He also noted that rape and attempted rape are “notoriously under reported,” the inference being that the real numbers are obviously far higher. And he’s right: a national study shows that 80 per cent of female rape victims don’t even report their victimization to the police.

Q: And why don’t victims report?

A: The reasons are complex, but one reason that’s key is that many fear the authorities won’t take them seriously. They’ve suffered enough – they don’t want to be dragged through yet another humiliating experience

Q: Given the complexity of this story and the fact that you couldn’t actually speak to the alleged victim or the accused, what tools did you use in your reporting?

A: Obviously I needed to know as much as I could about what happened that night, and key to answering that question was getting a hold of a 300-page transcript of the pre-trial hearing that took place in October. That hearing – in keeping with America’s open justice system – was public, and three key witnesses came forward and told the court precisely what they saw. And what they saw, according to testimony, was shocking.

Q: You and others have noted the significant role played by social media in this story. Just how big was it?

A: It was massive. To begin, it literally unfolded on the Internet in real time – or close to real time. The football players and their friends brazenly posted photos, tweets and even a video-commentary as the night went on. And that proved crucial in the police investigation, because the victim and her family gathered them all up and handed them over to the police within 48 hours. The police had all of that – including the notorious Michael Nodianos video-commentary – straight out of the gate. I think a lot of people were under the impression that bloggers had actually obtained “evidence” from the Internet that the police never had. And that led to accusations that the police were either incompetent or engaged in a cover-up. But the transcripts of the pre-trial hearing make it clear: the lead detective in the case stated that when the victim’s parents came through the door on Aug. 14, they brought a flash drive. The police were given at least one photo, copies of an array of disgusting tweets that had been posted, and the notorious Nodianos video. The police reviewed that video “many times” and it “helped and guided us,” the detective said. Still, the positive power of the Internet was also on display. Bloggers like Alexandria Goddard raised broad awareness of the case and I think it’s safe to say that this kind of publicity put pressure on Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine to assign more personnel and resources to the case. She made a difference.

Q: Can any good come out of this?

A: You have to hope that the magnitude of coverage allocated to this story will inspire governments – both state and federal – school and college authorities, coaches and athletes, and everyone who cares about the issue of rape in America, to confront it in a serious way. Regardless of the outcome of this trial, the data shows rape and ‘rape culture’ in America is a grave problem. It has to be addressed.

Bill Schiller has held bureau postings for the Toronto Star in Johannesburg, Berlin, London and Beijing. He is a NNA and Amnesty International Award winner, and a Harvard Nieman Fellow from the class of '06. Follow him on Twitter @wschiller

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