Register Citizen wins Public Service DFMie for coverage, commentary on rape/bullying case

Register Citizen illustration

The Register Citizen in Torrington, Conn., won the Public Service DFMie for its reporting and commentary on a rape case that included bullying of the 13-year-old victims in social media.

The nomination cites the work of Jessica Glenza, Tom Cleary, Tom Caprood, John Berry and Matt DiRienzo. The rules of the DFMies call for nominations of work by more than four staff members to be staff awards.

The nomination explains:

The staff of a 5,000-circulation daily newspaper in a small town in Northwest Connecticut pursued a routine court story with traditional investigative reporting and social media research until it had laid out a community culture of abuse of women and children generations in the making, and a police and school department that placed athletics, public perception and fear of litigation above protection of students.

After Torrington High School football players Edgar Gonzalez and Joan Toribio were each charged with statutory rape of a 13-year-old girl, dozens of fellow students used social media to bully the victims. The newspaper printed examples of Twitter messages from students including fellow athletes and honor roll students that referred to the case as “young men acting like boys and girls acting like whores,” and blaming the victims for “snitching.”

By the end of 2013, seven teens associated with Torrington High School football had been charged with rape. Even after the bullying of the 13-year-old victims became a national story, The Register Citizen reported on students at Torrington High School rallying behind the accused football players and referring to statutory rape as a crime akin to “jaywalking.” Torrington had been ignoring a law aimed at protecting students from bullying, and repeatedly passed up opportunities to protect students and send the right public message about rape and consent due to fear of exposure to lawsuits.

The newspaper’s reporting and editorials showed how the local police department perpetuated this culture by referring to the case as “consensual” and “not forcible.” When warrants were unsealed, The Register Citizen detailed how alcohol was poured down the throat of one of the 13-year-old girls, how her arm was bent behind her back during the assault and how she repeatedly said “No.”

Finally, The Register Citizen’s reporting, editorials and decision-making on this coverage revealed a disconnect in and sparked a statewide and national discussion of how media can perpetuate “rape culture” in how it covers sexual assault. The Register Citizen’s main and much larger local daily newspaper competitor, the Republican-American of Waterbury, referred to the case as a “tryst” in a lead front page headline. That newspaper also wrote an editorial blaming the girls’ parents for the rape, because they should have raised girls who don’t sneak out of the house and meet 18-year-old men, and its editor spoke at a “community conversation” on the topic about how the victims “had a past” and that social media was to blame for “ruining the lives” of the students who bullied them.

The Register Citizen’s reporting on rape culture in Torrington was all the more remarkable considering the size and experience level of this small newsroom (6 reporters, 3 editors), and the hostility it faced from local school and police officials for breaking the story (being shut out for months from official comment on stories while officials talked to the paper’s local daily competitor, not to mention the New York Times and CNN).

The nomination included five links:

Judges’ comments: 

In the public service category, the judges choose Jessica Glenza, Tom Cleary, Tom Caprood, John Berry and Matt DiRienzo of the Register Citizen as the winners. Their challenge to the primacy of Torrington’s high school football hero culture as well as to a community and police culture of turning a blind eye to the serious problem of sexual assault was built on facts and solid reporting, and their response to the criticism of their coverage was equally solid. We especially liked their “FAQs”, which clearly summarized what they knew — and equally important, what they didn’t (yet) know. We admired how effectively this small “little engine that could” newsroom raised awareness of a huge issue in their community, and changed the conversation.

Glenza won the Journalist of the Year DFMie for small newsrooms in large part for her reporting on the rape/bullying case. Cleary was a finalist for Mid-Level Editor of the Year. The reporting on the rape/bullying case won a March DFMie. The Connecticut newsrooms won four 2014 DFMies.

Other finalists

Other finalists for the Public Service DFMie were:

Lisa M. Krieger and Dai Sugano won the 2013 Public Service DFMie.

Steve Buttry

By Steve Buttry

Steve Buttry is Digital Transformation Editor for Digital First Media. He oversees our efforts to transform newsroom operations and culture to more effectively pursue our digital goals. His duties include responsibility for social media and community engagement. He has visited most DFM newsrooms personally, leading workshops and coaching editors and other journalists in following the Digital First approach.

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