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Stanford University Sexual Assault Case Gains Unusual Media Attention


A sexual assault case in California has gained intense public and media attention recently. The assault took place on the campus of Stanford University, and the student convicted of the crime received a relatively lenient sentence - six months in jail and three years of probation.

The victim, who has not been named, read a statement at sentencing that was more than 7,000 words long. BuzzFeed published her entire statement late last week. It has been viewed and shared millions of times since then. I asked NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik earlier how this statement gained the traction it did.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: I think it's worth acknowledging that before BuzzFeed decided to post this statement, it actually first appeared on Palo Alto Online, a local news outlet in Northern California because the statement was released by a local prosecutor there. But what happened is that Amy Ziering - she's the director and producer of the documentary "The Hunting Ground" about rape on campus campus - sent the statement as an email to a reporter at BuzzFeed who covers rape and sexual assault, and she shared it with Shani Hilton.

And I spoke with Shani Hilton earlier today. She's the head of U.S. news for BuzzFeed. And together they said, we really should post this. We should really share this. This is going to be something that is powerful and moving.

And if you think about BuzzFeed, of course, it is something which is designed from the ground up to create viral content. And that certainly was the intent but not simply as a question of clicks as a business model but as something that they wanted to have an impact. And it sure did.

SHAPIRO: What's interesting to me is that a lot of news organization took quotes from that statement and included it in standard news stories about this trial. The statement in its entirety, though, had a completely different effect to the point that the journalist Ashleigh Banfield read the statement aloud on CNN. It lasted more than 30 minutes. Let's listen to a portion of that.

This is where the victim responded to the perpetrator's claim that one life was ruined that night, meaning his own. She says, no, two lives were ruined. Let's listen.


SHAPIRO: (Reading) You are the cause. I am the effect. You have dragged me through this hell with you, dipped me back into that night again and again. You knock down both our towers. I collapsed at the same time you did. Your damage was concrete - stripped of titles, degrees, enrollment. My damage was internal, unseen. I carry it with me. You took away my worth, my privacy, my energy, my time, my safety, by intimacy, my confidence, my own voice until today.

SHAPIRO: For cable news to spend 30 minutes reading a statement like that is pretty extraordinary, David. You've spoken with Ashley Banfield, at least exchanged messages with her via email. What did she tell you?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, she said that she read the statement on BuzzFeed Sunday night and about, call it, a quarter of the way through knew she wanted to do this, to read it on air. And she sent an email to Jeff Zucker, the head of CNN, and he instantly said go for it; we've got to do this.

And it is an incredible thing. It's also - you know, this is not a visual story in the sense that you have an anonymous victim who had decided not to be identified publicly. There's no videotape to offer here. You have the sight, essentially, of an anchor reading this aloud at great length - thousands of words. It's a real commitment to a story that clearly Banfield believes in.

SHAPIRO: David, why do you think this particular sexual assault case has been handled so differently in the media from the many other cases we've heard about in recent years?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, there's obviously the sense that this young man was sentenced far too lightly and that the judge in this case really dwelled far too much on his promising athletic career to the detriment of what the effect is for society and the ability to punish this man who was convicted, after all, of this sexual assault.

I think it's also worth noting. You know, you've had a number of instances of journalists trying to chronicle sexual assault on campus and get their hands around the threat that this poses to so many students. You know, Rolling Stone did that with a cover story which was completely discredited about the University of Virginia, and that spawned legal cases that are ongoing now. You had the documentary "The Hunting Ground" which aired on CNN which itself has had some of its factual basis challenged.

This is a case in which there was an accusation that in fact was witnessed by two graduate students because it took place in a public space. It was referred by the campus to local law enforcement authorities. There was a trial and a conviction. So you have a felon. You have something that was witnessed. You have something that ultimately is not really contestable. It happened.

And it allows people to channel their outrage about the lightness in sentencing but also their fears and concerns and anger that this takes place on college campuses which are meant to be sort of havens for students, places they can learn without threat and to allow an exploration of that issue without the question of, has the journalism been undermined?

The forcefulness of her statement, the clarity of the circumstances I think combined to a virality and to an attention that allows the media and society at large really pay heed to what's going on there.

SHAPIRO: NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik, thanks, as always.


[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: This story incorrectly refers to Amy Ziering as the director and producer of the documentary The Hunting Ground. Ziering produced the film; Kirby Dick was the director.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: June 8, 2016 at 12:00 AM EDT
This story incorrectly refers to Amy Ziering as the director and producer of the documentary The Hunting Ground. Ziering produced the film; Kirby Dick was the director.