Saturday, October 3, 2015

Open Letter to The Daily Mail: On Your Coverage of NJ v Anna Stubblefield

This is a blog about Autism but the reporting on this case upset me so much I felt compelled to complain. 

Dear Daily Mail,

Please issue a public apology to both those living with incontinence, and the disabled community for the truly awful way you presented this case to the public.

I realize that any legal case involving sex makes for salacious headlines that attract higher readership, and when the sex involves a disabled adult, it just makes things more headline grabbing, but your coverage of the verdict in the case of Anna Stubblefield is thoughtlessly harming entire populations of people.  In journalism words are everything and the way words are used to color information can be more damaging that the actual neutral revelation of factual information to the public:

Headline screenshot of the Daily Mail with headline reading "Jury finds female
 professor GUILTY of raping mute, cerebral palsy-stricken, diaper-wearing man
after claimed the two were 'in love'
Stephen Hawking is a 'mute', 'diaper wearing', individual who needs supports to eat and walk, and we accept that he can think, write books and articles, be married, and father children. But somehow we cannot accept that someone born disabled could communicate without speaking even when the media  has repeatedly reported that such a thing is possible? We know people can be aware, alert, and unable to use verbal speech, as the stories of disabled adults like Martin Pistorius make clear. Yet  the Daily Mail insists on using features of a victim's disabilities to denigrate him in the eyes of the public in order to make the viability of any intimate relationship between the victim and the convicted professor as abhorrently improbable and 'weird' as possible to all readers.

As the daughter of a wounded American military veteran and the mother of a multiply disabled son, I strongly object to the language you are using to report these events. Splashing "diaper wearing" across your headlines as if incontinence is a bar to intimacy is shaming entire groups of adults who live full and productive lives with incontinence.  No headline is worth shaming people in order to try and make your story seem more incredulous.

"Cerebral Palsy stricken" is also an unacceptable, thoroughly ableist turn of phrase, particularly in a modern world where people like comedian Maysoon Zayid, actor RJ Mitte, activists and musicians like Keith Jones and Leroy Moore are making it clear that we need to rethink what we believe about disability in general and CP in particular. I know quite a few adults who proudly declare their CP labels who are in relationships and are parents. Their children don't deserve to see CP splashed on a headline as if their parents marrying and raising them is "weird news".

Then there is the misogynistic commentary under photos of the accused entering the court room. Her legs were pointed out and what she was wearing was described as if she was putting herself on display and this is also truly disgusting to do to a woman in any situation. Pointing out that she was smiling with the presumption that this is weird is also not professional journalism. People smile when they are afraid, when they believe in their own innocence, and when they are out of touch with reality and have no understanding of the events around them. Unless the Daily Mail is capable of mind reading, speculating on why the accused is smiling by innuendo based turn of phrase is also inappropriate. Report the story. Don't degrade women to increase your hits regardless of the verdict in a case.

Even in cases where trial by jury has concluded that a disabled adult was the victim of a crime, presenting events as if we are not discussing a 34 year old adult, regardless of degree of disability, is disrespectful to the victim.  I expected at least an attempt at due diligence in investigative journalism without promoting the stereotypical presumption that a disabled man cannot have a relationship with another consenting adult. Having witnessed the opposite in my time growing up with disabled veterans who live with extensive physical disability and traumatic brain injury and have their spouses and children standing by them, that is the wrong message to send to the public.

It is my understanding that this trial has been going on over a year. Due diligence in reporting required that prior to the verdict in this case, The Daily Mail at least present a more in depth background of the case, including the following questions, to the public:

  1. Why did the victim's family consent to the use of 'Facilitated Communication'  as you emphasized it in your article, to begin with if they questioned its validity? 
  2. Why did the victim's family actively travel and enjoy conferences, consent to the victim auditing college courses and accept that the victim was genuinely communicating for years prior to the point where the victim disclosed that the nature of his relationship with this professor had changed and as such he would be attempting to leave their guardianship?
  3.  The victim's family, his legal guardians, were quick to file civil suit against Rutgers that failed. Does this imply they may have a financial interest in insuring the victim is declared incompetent?
  4. On what basis was the victim in this case declared incompetent to depose or testify? In cases of guardianship with disabled adults where competence is in question and the adult seeks autonomy from legal guardians, independent communication and cognitive assessments should have been ordered by the court, and the disabled adult, if able to communicate, should have been given the right to request independent legal counsel. Were these independent assessments done? 
  5. Everybody communicates. The victim could have been presented with simple communication tools that assist in determining the extent of any harm done him. Was the victim in this case questioned about the alleged abuse? Anyone capable of indicating yes or no can testify or be deposed about events. The question is, was this done? Wearing diapers doesn't impair brain function, nor does needing help with feeding and other supports. These things don't automatically mean lack of cognition, as again stories like Martin Pistorius' life story teach us all. 
You are reporting the conviction of a trusted professional for the rape of a disabled adult, the collapse of the accused's academic career, a potentially life ending prison term, and the eternal silencing of a victim who appears to have never been re-assessed or given a chance at any viable secondary means of augmentative alternative communication, after years of  being able to enter and audit courses from a college campus, travel, and be presumed competent. 

Nothing in this case is worth lampooning, or being used as internet fodder. I am quite concerned about the mental health of both the accused and the victim in this case. It seems odd to me that if a professor with no history of abusing others acts so completely out of character, no mental health assessments were done to insure that she was able to stand trial. 

 I am wondering why disability rights organizations not directly linked to Ms. Stubblefield and her activities are not concerned about the victim, why there was no attempt to offer services to find neutral AAC support by at least approaching the family and offering some help, and if anyone has even bothered to explain to the victim what has happened to his life and what will happen now. If I am wondering these things, then it is the job of reporting media like the Daily Mail to research and report them.

 Whatever this case is, it is much more complex than the Mail is presenting it and it is sad to me that a better job was not done investigating and presenting this to the public. If I can google and get more information on this case, it seems that the Daily Mail could have done a more humane and complete job putting together a story that related the facts without insulting so many people in the process. 


Mrs. Kerima Çevik
Former Daily Mail reader

'Mute', 'Incontinent' Males
Stephen Hawking shares his voice software with the world
Martin Pistorius: Trapped In His Body For 12 Years, A Man Breaks Free

Badass Disabled People
Writer, Actor, Comedian Maysoon Zayid
Rapper, Activist, Author, Leroy Moore
Rapper, Speaker, Activist, father, Keith Jones mentoring

The Case of Anna Stubblefield
Great Case Summary

The Offending Daily Mail Article
Failed Civil Lawsuit Against Rutgers and Stubblefield

Baseline AAC App Example
Yes/No Answers App
Cost $1.99

1 comment:

  1. The Daily Mail has been a horrific rag for years. I say this not to justify them, but to articulate that I am not in the least surprised that they have taken the path of least accountability in reporting on this case. It's awful.