5 Major Obstacles Journalists Face When Covering Child Sex Abuse

Child sex abuse is an epidemic.  The apparent assumption among many is that their own hometown or state is Ground Zero for the most related incidences or worst kinds of related abuse.  The truth: We all live at Ground Zero.

One in four girls and one in six boys in this country are sexually abused before turning 18.  And as frighteningly high as those numbers are, they are most likely even higher.  According to National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC) communications director Tracy Cox, child sex abuse is the most under-reported crime in the U.S.

News media must, MUST, report on this abuse responsibly, frequently, and candidly. It is the only way more people will be aware of the true depth of its horrors, its true breadth beyond Sandusky-sized scandals, its actual nature often at odds with cultural stereotypes, and its mind, body and life-altering impact on survivors long after its occurrence or a related court case has adjourned.

Yet, journalists– even the good ones, the ones genuinely invested in informing the public about the child sex abuse epidemic– are apparently often at a loss to report as thoroughly, regularly, and truthfully as they would like.

During the opening session of a two-day workshop on covering child sex abuse I participated in last week at The Poynter Institute, Poynter guru and workshop organizer Kelly McBride asked the journo attendees about the obstacles they face while reporting and writing stories involving incidences or issues of child sex abuse.

The list of their responses quickly compiled on a pair of freestanding boards was long, much longer than I expected.  Below is the gist of that list, in some cases combining and briefly fleshing out what they described as especially subversive or impenetrable stonewalls to journalists’ child sex abuse reporting efforts.

5 Major Obstacles to Covering Child Sex Abuse

1) Language Issues.  In many instances, journalists lack the language to truly describe child sex abuse acts.  Due to outside legal edicts or self-imposed ethical standards, the news media regularly rely upon vague euphemisms when outlining the most vile abusive behavior of pedophiles and other perpetrators.

These euphemisms often obscure the full gore and truth of what survivors endure, leaving readers to guess at what really happened or scroll elsewhere without ever coming to grips with the sheer, insane monstrousness of it all.  (For example, among other acts, news outlets have reported that PSU child sex abuser Jerry Sandusky engaged in “involuntary deviate sexual intercourse” with pre-adolescent boys.  That does not even come close to capturing what he actually did to those children.)

A related roadblock: concerns centered on what some journalists feel is an almost unavoidable sensationalism if and when full truths are exposed, possibly disgusting some readers and burying others in the depravity at the expense of the human impact.

The Judicial Language Project at New England Law | Boston maintains a running list of problematic language used during sexual assault cases and a competing list of more appropriate terms and phrases to employ.

2) Rampant Misunderstandings.  Cultural misperceptions abound regarding child sex abuse, along with shockingly inaccurate stereotypes engendered or exploited by entertainment media and irresponsible news reports.  (One example: the so-called “stranger danger” fear, in which the public believes young people are far more likely to fall victim to an unknown predator, lurking cinematically in the shadows, ready to pounce.  In truth, 90 percent of child sex abuse incidences are perpetrated by individuals with whom the survivors are familiar, such as a family member, teacher, coach or neighbor.)

These types of stereotypical fallbacks– and the misinformed populace they nurture– make seeking and telling the truth about child sex abuse that much more difficult.  At certain times, they place journalists into combative positions against sources and an audience that simply refuses to believe what they are hearing or reading is true.  At other times, they lead to dismissals about stories’ news value, such as those focused on the long-term suffering and recovery of child abuse survivors who are now adults. (Because, of course, in the movies, the bad guy goes to prison or the good guy gets revenge and the story ends…)

3) Culture of Silence.  There are endless institutional barriers that limit how much, if any, information is released about even the whiff of a child sex abuse allegation. These barriers are often mounted by schools and organizations worried about PR and financial fallouts (see Penn State and the Peace Corps).  They are also put in place by law enforcement and judicial agencies (including juvenile and tribal court systems)– at times of course for the sake of the survivors and their families, the rights of the accused or the law’s due process.

There also tends to be a lack of official records documenting sex abuse, a reporting gap journalists struggle to surmount in the face of scant additional evidence beyond an accuser’s account.  To this end, Poynter workshop participants spoke about the need to respect the rights of the accused– ensuring unprovable cases, aggressive prosecutors or political agendas don’t bring down individuals who are actually innocent.

4) The Survivor’s Side.  Given the nature of the crimes– and their occurrence during a highly-impressionable time in people’s lives– it can be difficult or at times nearly impossible to gather information from survivors.  Survivors may simply not be ready to talk.  They may not yet be fully aware of what happened to them years before.  They may not wish to cause any harm to their perpetrators– often someone they know– even after what the individuals did to them.  They may also fear the ramifications of sharing their stories publicly in any form, named attribution or not.  Or they may still be quite young, literally unable to share– or legally advised against sharing– their own stories with the press.

The survivor’s side that is then often run in child sex abuse stories consists of police report snippets, testimony transcripts, general statements from survivors’ families or legal teams, shadowed faces on TV or anonymous accounts in written stories– all failing to produce the full human recounting of the crimes that would truly enable the public to connect with the emotional torment that accompanies the physical pain.

5) Newsroom Realities, News Judgment Mentalities.  For all the reasons cited above and more, child sex abuse stories require extra time, teamwork, and resources to report.  These are all in short supply in the current journalistic landscape, amid layoffs, multi-tasking, instant deadlines, and story quotas.

There is also apparently a more deeply embedded history of avoidance at many news outlets when it comes to covering child sex abuse.  Concerns exist about an audience distaste for abuse stories or a weariness in response to their repeated appearance on the front page.  Some staffers also find the subject unpalatable as the focus of a day’s work. Other staffers are sex abuse survivors themselves and don’t feel ready or objective enough to report upon related behavior.  And some higher-ups apparently make it clear they deem many sex abuse cases too controversial and lawsuit-prone to be worth the column inches.

There is also a lingering debate over newsworthiness.  In Occupy Wall Street terms, the high-profile Sandusky scandal is the 1 percent.  An overwhelmingly large majority of child sex abuse cases remains private, between individuals, with emotional and physical scars often unnoticed by the public and possibly not felt by the survivor for years. Their impact can be much more difficult to pin down and sell in a story pitch, especially compared to more mainstream crimes like a robbery or shooting (sporting easily-verifiable consequences such as missing money or spilled blood) or public impact events like a government funding tie-up or major road construction.

Bottom line: Child sex abuse encompasses a set of incredibly depraved, complex, and difficult-to-ferret-out criminal behaviors whose barbarism often turns the stomachs of reporters searching for assignments and readers scanning the news.  But the stories still need to be told.  One web hub created by Poynter to help you along the way: Resources for Covering Sexual Abuse of Children.

One Response to “5 Major Obstacles Journalists Face When Covering Child Sex Abuse”
  1. Shana Rowan says:

    Imagine if just a quarter of all the press coverage and media attention devoted to defaming Joe Paterno and reminding us all of what we already know, that Jerry Sandusky is a child molester – and instead devoted that time and attention to the bigger issue: laws that CONTINUE to fail children and families. “If it saves just one child” could easily turn into thousands. http://www.iloveasexoffender.blogspot.com/2012/07/defaming-joe-paterno-doesnt-protect.html