I remember an NLGJA conference session about the coverage of crime. A number of journalists and PR people were talking about how we cover crime-especially crimes against LGBT people–and the comment was made about how important it was for the families of crime victims to have good media representation to get their story out. I recall, being a bit of a cynic, leaning over to a friend and saying, “maybe the problem with crime coverage is not the journalism, but that victims have media representatives.”
That memory was sparked by a Reuters story about the reaction by some gay and lesbian activists and journalists to the sentencing of Dharun Ravi, who was convicted of hate crimes after the suicide of his Rutgers University roommate Tyler Clementi.
While not charged with causing Clementi’s death, Ravi was vilified for gay bullying and has since been convicted of hate crimes for targeting Clementi and invading his privacy because he was gay.
Ravi, 20, faces a maximum of 10 years in prison at his sentencing hearing on Monday in Middlesex County Superior Court in New Jersey. He could also be deported to his native India.
But what had once seemed to be a clear-cut case of gay bullying gave way to a more complicated story, revealed during Ravi’s criminal trial earlier this year. The incident triggered mixed feelings among gay commentators. Many are calling on the court to give Ravi probation instead of prison time.
One gay writer said he was encouraged that harassment against gay men and women was being taken more seriously, but concerned that Ravi may have been used as a scapegoat for Clementi’s suicide.
The article notes that Out magazine’s Aaron Hicklin, Andrew Sullivan, E.J. Graff, and Dan Savage have all raised concerns that Ravi is being over-sentenced and that the jury verdict may have been the product of overzealous prosecution.
The journalism question, however, is whether the media itself helped create the environment that led to Ravi’s sentencing–whether one believes he was overcharged or not. The Clementi suicide was an instant cause celebre in both the mainstream press and the LGBT press. His suicide was used as a symbol of the problem of bullying of LGBT people. I know that when I first heard about Clementi’s death and the media coverage of what it symbolized and said about his roommate Ravi, I had a very clear sense of what happened and how awful the bullying was.
Then I read Ian Parker’s New Yorker piece and suddenly the story wasn’t at all clear. Like all good journalism, Parker challenged many of my assumptions about what happened in that residence hall room, what Tyler Clementi’s life was like as a gay college student, and what Dharun Ravi was like as a college student in 2011. That piece, and the subsequent trial, raised a lot of questions about how the media had described the bullying of Clementi and what Ravi was like as the alleged perpetrator of a “hate crime.”
Now, Dharun Ravi–like Tyler Clementi–has had some great public relations assistance. The aftermath of the trial demonstrates some keen publicity strategy in changing the perception of Ravi just as Clementi’s death was framed by some keen activist and public relations strategy. It’s hard to imagine what it was like before crime victims and alleged criminals had public relations machines shaping the news stories about high-profile incidents.
But was the media too quick in its judgment about what really happened to Tyler Clementi? Is the media being too quick, now, in buying the media narrative that Ravi is also something of a victim? For journalists, especially LGBT journalists, is there a lesson here in how we view bullying and the current activist narrative about bullying? What are your thoughts?