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Use Clear Language to Avoid Stigmatizing Victims in Child Sex Abuse Cases

The power of words to imply unintended meanings or perpetuate stereotypes is evident in the wake of the trial of Jerry Sandusky, a retired assistant football coach at Pennsylvania State University under the late Joe Paterno. On June 22, Sandusky was found guilty of 45 of the 48 charges of sexual abuse of young boys over a 15-year period. Adding to the difficulty of providing thorough, sensitive coverage of child sex abuse is that the language of criminal cases can obfuscate the horror of what really happened. Here are some points to consider:

  • Good news writing should find ways to simplify and state clearly what happened to a minor who is the victim of sexual abuse.

You can see examples of problematic and appropriate language used in a real court cases at the Judicial Language Project website. The goal of the Judicial Language Project is “to identify ways in which the language used in legal opinions perpetuates stereotypes and stigmatizes victims, diminishing the severity of what happened,” according to the group’s website.  The project is part of the Center for Law and Social Responsibility at New England Law/Boston. The project “seeks to open the dialog about inappropriate language in appellate level sexual assault cases and offer alternatives.”

The site is understandably graphic in its language of court rulings that used language that implied consent or pleasure on the part of a minor who was a victim of sexual abuse or assault. The site identifies problematic language in a variety of court rulings, focusing particularly on the notion that children should not be described as having engaged in any action of their own volition.

The appropriate language proposed seeks to clearly demonstrate the one-sided and non-consensual nature of a defendant’s actions.

In addition, a list of useful sites (including the Judicial Language Project) for reporters covering sexual abuse cases involving children is offered at Poynter Institute’s News University. At this site, you’ll find resources on definitions, experts and statistics.

  • Good news writing balances all perspectives.

Overcoming Bias discusses the need to avoid stigmatizing news sources by emphasizing fairness and seeking out the perspectives of all the major players involved in a news event — in this case, the victims, their families and the perpetrators (Chapter 5: “Understanding Culture, Understanding Sources”). To explore this further, download the presentation from Kelly McBride, Truth and Fairness When Reporting on Child Sexual Abuse,” available on Poynter’s News University website. It covers using your ethical journalism tools to ensure that your coverage of sex abuse is fair, doesn’t perpetuate stereotypes and shields victims.

Determining Cause: The Case of a Racecar Driver’s Death

Perspective comes into play when journalists seek to determine the cause of news events. Attribution is the cognitive term for how people seek to explain the causes of behaviors and events.

Here’s a news story that showcases the concepts of perspective and attribution: Race car driver Dan Wheldon, an Indy 500 champion, died in October, 2011, when his car crashed during a race in Las Vegas that was heavily promoted by the chief executive of IndyCar racing.

Randy Bernard’s crowd-seeking ploy for this heavily-promoted event was to have Wheldon purposely start in last position and still be first across the finish line. His car crashed before finishing the race.

Read the story in the New York Times about Bernard and his efforts to create more exciting races to lure fans to the track.

As you read the story, think about the concept of attribution and the assignation of cause in this news event:

* What was the reporter’s angle on this story?

* Who is the focus of the story?

* What does the focus of the story tell you about the ultimate cause of the crash?

*How does the reporting support the assignation of cause to a man who wasn’t even in a car racing at the time of the crash?

The story never states that any one person or decision was responsible for the crash.  Why is this the case? Is it possible to ever conclusively assign blame for this driver’s death? What moral, legal or economic reasons might there be to assign blame in this case?

Imagine for a moment that the story were written instead from the perspective of a professional race car driver looking to help improve the promotions and  image of racing as the sport faces declining crowds and fan interest. How might the story’s focus change? How might this different perspective influence the possible explanations for the crash and Wheaton’s death?

For more on the topic of Attribution, see Overcoming Bias, “Attribution and Editing Without Bias,” Chapter 9 (p.159).


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