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:
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.
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.
For practicing journalists in newsrooms and for student journalists learning to avoid misinformation, here’s an excellent resource: “Misinformation and Fact-Checking: Research Findings from Social Science” by Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler.
It’s a research paper for the Media Policy Initiative of the New America Foundation; the link will bring you to a Columbia Journalism Review article about the report as well as a link to download a PDF copy of the report.
Don’t let the “research paper” title fool you. This 28-page document is readable (skimmable if you have to) and loaded with understandable recaps of research findings, pithy graphics and news media examples that deal with “the prevalence of misinformation in contemporary politics,” as the document summary states.
Below is a verbatim list from the document listing the social science findings detailed in the paper. When applicable, I’ve noted the chapter in parentheses from Overcoming Bias (OB) that complements or discusses the findings:
Summary of social science findings
Seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin’s persona is changing before our eyes. In early news accounts, he was portrayed as a Skittle-eating kid who was healthy and well-adjusted, and news consumers knew him by this sweet-faced photo:
With news outlets and blogs digging into Martin’s short life, news reports say that social media is providing another persona, one of a tough teen with shady connections. The photo that accompanies this new persona is reportedly from Martin’s online life:
So: Does Martin’s social media persona matter? Does it tell us anything factual and concrete? What about its effect on a potential jury; should the news media consider that scenario?
What about reports that Martin was suspended three times from high school? Does that matter to this story?
This evolving story has the potential to be another Duke Lacrosse case (Ch. 3, “Perilous Assumptions”), in which the news media, short on information but long on stereotypes and schemas, reported slanted stories. In the Duke case, lacrosse players at Duke University were accused of raping a dancer invited to a players’ house party. The dancer was black. The players were white–and all but declared guilty in the news media. But they were innocent, as it turned out.
When there is a vacuum of information, suggestions and assumptions based on character sometimes fill in for facts and evidence.
In the Martin case, what matters is what happened between Martin and George Zimmerman, the self-appointed neighborhood watch captain who shot the unarmed Martin in the chest at close range on Feb. 26. Details are also emerging about the character of Zimmerman, who is part Hispanic. One news account describes Zimmerman as a “frustrated cop wannabe.”
The story is still very much in flux. Law enforcement officials are investigating whether or not Zimmerman acted in self defense. They are also trying to decipher whether Zimmerman used a racial epithet on the 911 call. As in the Duke case, the official decisions made in the investigation are the real story. After all, in the Duke Case, the district attorney who prosecuted the players ended up being disbarred for unethical conduct in his handling of the case. What, if anything, can journalists learn from the experience in the Duke case that also matters in the Martin case?
In this case, what does it mean to focus on the evidence, not the innuendos?
Other questions to consider: How should journalists report on the protests occurring nationwide calling for justice to be done in this case? Florida’s seven-year-old “Stand Your Ground” law removes a person’s duty to retreat when threatened with seriously bodily harm or death; is justice done if that is repealed? Is justice done if Zimmerman is arrested and charged? Is justice done only if Zimmerman is found guilty?
These questions provide the opportunity for journalists to report the story in a 360-degree manner (see Ch. 5 on the Rashomon Technique), interviewing citizens from all walks of life about what this case symbolizes to them, about race relations in America and about what justice means.
The Duke lacrosse case taught the news media and news consumers alike not to try to fit stories into ready-made molds. It’s unclear what the Martin story is as yet, but let’s not relive past mistakes.
The recent story by Taunya English of WHYY on National Public Radio examined the problem of obesity in African American girls.
English began her story by noting that Americans in general are fighting the obesity epidemic, but the problem is particularly evident in black women. It stated that the weight gain begins in youth; “among all children, black girls are most likely to report they got no physical activity in the past week,” English reported.
The story by English, a health reporter for WHYY in Philadelphia, ran on NPR as part of a year-long project in which NPR editors and Kaiser Health News train reporters from local public radio stations throughout the U.S.
The listener comments were critical of the coverage, as noted by NPR ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos in his column on the story:
“I was once again appalled to hear about an issue that has nothing to do with race framed in a racial context,” wrote Carolyn Casey, of Boston, MA.
Listener Kwende Madu commented: “I would ask that NPR refrain from publishing stories that concern the African-American community as this only gives racist elements an excuse to vent their hatred.”
But here is where evidence-based reporting enters. Overcoming Bias‘ chapter 7 explores biases in judgment and how factual reporting can help combat any inclination toward prejudicial coverage, intended or not.
English’s report wasn’t borne of prejudice, it was rooted in evidence: She cited research that found that about half of African-American women in the U.S. are obese, compared to 30 percent of white women. The problem is more prevalent for blacks than whites, and the reasons are certainly worth exploring and airing. That’s a legitimate story to tell.
Here’s a quick opportunity to think about local coverage of people with disabilities. The issue at hand: The balancing act of avoiding patronizing or awestruck coverage of a person with a disability versus appropriately telling the life story of a person who happens to have a disability.
The link to the story is here.
The feature is part of a news outlet’s coverage of the local university’s winter graduation. It’s typical for a news outlet to seek out interesting or stand-out students to humanize the masses of students graduating at a large university.
It’s useful to familiarize yourself with the guidelines for covering people with disabilities in the online Resources for Chapter 8 on Words and Tone.
With those guidelines in mind, consider these questions:
* Is this a story about a promising student who is graduating or a student with a disability?
* Rynita McGuire, the subject of this feature story, states toward the end of the piece that: “I didn’t want people to think I was good for a girl in a wheelchair, I wanted people to think I was good.” Her mother is quoted as saying: “She doesn’t feel like she is handicapped.” Given such comments, should a journalist cover McGuire’s budding career as an artist at all?
* Would McGuire elicit coverage if she were not handicapped?
* Is there benefit to adding more information in general about McGuire’s life at the university? What would the effect of adding more information about McGuire’s life in general have on the overall focus of the story? On the news value of the story?
* McGuire is a strong voice in this feature, with many direct quotes; what is the effect of those editorial decisions by the author?