When does a textbook example of a "local crime story" become worthy of 18-paragraphs of coverage in the national news pages of the New York Times? Well, it helps if it services a socially liberal narrative. Bonus points if that narrative involves persecution for the sake of sexual orientation in some shape or form.
And that's precisely why 18-year-old Kaitlyn Hunt's arrest for sex with her 14-year-old girlfriend made page A18 in the national print edition of the Times today, in a Carlos Harrison story headlined, "Florida Student, 18, Gets Online Support After Her Arrest for Sex With Girlfriend, 14." For good measure, editors made sure to include a yearbook-style photo of Hunt along with a pull quote from Hunt's mother that the charges are "like a death sentence to all her future goals." [see related item by my colleague Matthew Philbin here]
Harrison began his story noting that "Hunt's parents insist that their daughter, a Central Florida high school senior, is being prosecuted for sex crimes only because her lover was another girl." While he quickly added that the "state attorney" protests otherwise, that "the age of the two girls is at the crux of the case," Harrison waited until the 14th paragraph to get the prosecutor's side of the story.
But until then, Harrison loaded his story with details made to make Hunt a sympathetic figure and a victim of homophobia (emphasis mine):
Ms. Hunt, described by her parents as a happy, hardworking girl who played on the basketball team, sang in the school choir, helped mentor other cheerleaders and taught gymnastics to younger children, became an international cause célèbre over the weekend after details of her arrest and pending prosecution exploded across the Internet.
Between Friday night and Tuesday morning, more than 100,000 supporters from around the world signed an online petition siding with Ms. Hunt’s parents. About 30,000 supporters, some from as far away as Australia, South Korea and the Netherlands, had joined the Facebook group Free Kate.
Steven Hunt Jr., Ms. Hunt’s father, wrote in an introduction to the online petition that he believed “Kaitlyn’s girlfriend’s parents are pressing charges because they are against the same-sex relationship, even though their daughter has stated that this is a consensual relationship.” A little later, he added, “Now she’s been expelled from school and is facing serious felonies — all because she is in love.”
[T]o Ms. Hunt’s Facebook supporters, it seemed like a tale of high school love, archaic laws and antigay prejudice.
“People are frustrated with the current laws and stipulations against anyone, whether it’s for age or same-sex, and maybe the fact that people just think that what is happening is unfair, because that’s a lot of the comments that we’re seeing on the page, is that it’s just not right,” Nichole Mottau-Sweet, who began the Facebook page, said. “It’s the old quote ‘The punishment doesn’t fit the crime.’ Although no one considers what went on any kind of crime that deserves punishment.”
Also notable is how often Harrison erroneously describes Hunt as a "girl," even though she was 18 years of age when she allegedly committed the two counts of "lewd or lascivious battery," second-degree felony offenses. Both legally and by journalistic convention, females aged 18 and older are "women," not "girls."
Indeed, the 2002 edition of the New York Times Manual of Style requires that Times reporters "[r]eserve girl for references to the very young," adding that reporters should "use it only in contexts where boy would be appropriate." For example, "It is a saleswoman not a salesgirl, and a college student, not a college girl," the style manual lectures.