It has been less than two weeks since Brock Turner, the Stanford University student convicted of felony sexual assault was sentenced to since months in prison by Santa Clara Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky. What is compelling about this case is not only the shocking brevity of the sentence but the narrative set in place that allowed it to be handed down. In contrast we must look to the mass shooting that took place in Orlando’s Pulse nightclub and how the narrative of that story was handled so differently. We must conduct some what of a media analysis of the reporting and compare it to the way other narratives of sensational nature were brought to the public to truly reveal how this case, and our perspectives on criminal behavior can be influenced by the media.
In the Stanford case the picture has been painted for us of a well to do young man, an accomplished swimmer who has caught him self in a world of trouble. This student of a prestigious university was caught in the act of sexual assault and found guilty of committing the crime. His defense was centered around how the nature of the university “party culture” and the casual attitude towards sexual activity influenced his ability to discern whether forcing himself onto an unconscious female student would be considered nonconsensual sex. It should be noted that there is no such thing as non consensual sex, there is sex, which implies consent, and rape, which is sex that occurs without consent.
The first photo of Brock Turner released to the media was one of him wearing a suit, smiling, with a clean innocent appearance. He also looked quite young in the photo. This would not be immediately noticed as unusual unless we look at the first photo released of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed young man who was shot by off duty neighborhood watchmen George Zimmerman.
What we see here is a stark difference in the portrayal of a victim of a crime and a perpetuator of a crime. Public opinion on these two individuals had already been swayed with the very instigation of their stories. This instigation was perpetuated in the court cases casting Martin as a threat, but casting Turner as a victim of society.
While it is true that we can not shield Brock Turner of the responsibility for his actions we must also recognize social criticism that his case brings to bear, however exaggerated, is true. As the Stanford rape case continues on we see heartfelt letters from Brock’s father and mother asking that leniency be shown to this young boy who is an otherwise good kid, whom has been swept up in a campus culture that all but condoned this kind of behavior, making it nearly impossible to be held culpable for his actions.
If we adopt the theory that his parents put forth we can not hold Brock Turner entirely guilty for the rape he committed against his fellow student, we must share in some of the blame. We must share in some of the blame for being a community that accepts rape culture as the status quo. A community whose parents defend their child’s deplorable actions with petty descriptions of politeness and for being a community whose judges do not make clear how heinous a crime rape is and deliver firm sentencing to those convicted. For where did Brock Turner learn that this kind of behavior was tolerable? He must have learned it from the parents who defended him and the institution of justice that protected him.
Conversely we can look at shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando. We can note that not until it was known that the assailant was a muslim did we hear the word “terror” used to describe the actions of killing 49 people. The word “terror” was not used to describe the actions of the Charleston, South Carolina shooter who opened fire in a Church. This man was labeled as mentally ill. The narrative constructed is one that is carefully chosen. These words do not come from nowhere. Rape can easily be called a hate crime against women, it could be called an act of terror, wouldn’t you call someone who thinks it is okay to rape someone mentally unstable?
At the crux of culture are the values and ethics that frame our beliefs, aesthetics, and color the language we use. These ethics determine for us what is right and wrong moral behavior. Living with in rape culture, Brock Turner was led to believe that an intoxicated woman, was an opportunity. Living in homophobia and extremism, let the Orlando shooter (whom we are intentionally not naming) to believe that it was necessary to open fire on a crowd of people. How we view each of these people in the recesses of our cultural framework are what allows us to label their actions, “nonconsensual sex” and “terrorism”. Without this cultural context of ethics and morality around the value of body autonomy rape is not criminalized, it is excused. It is excused because of an estimation at how vast the potential is that this young man might claim. That estimation outweighed the freedom of the woman he raped. His potential now, is certainly limitless, what directed towards what we dare not imagine.
We can not afford to overlook the way these messages effect our views, the media is not only a platform for reflecting culture but a platform for influencing it as well. Various stories have surfaced on social media criticizing the verdict and the local community of Santa Clara and other groups have mobilized to have the judged appointment recounted. This action is one that shows how the public must respond when the government fails to uphold the values of its people. The media should be held to a high standard as well, not only selling us the titillating content that will attract viewers but delivering just reporting, that does not skew opinion with turn of phrase and mislabeling.