A sensitive approach to reporting on sexual abuse

by | Feb 1, 2009 | Recent Writing | 0 comments

The Inlander/February 2009

Sexual abuse is one of the most sensitive topics reported in newspapers. The victims often want to avoid publicity, but reporting sex crimes may help prevent future similar crimes and help victims find sources of help.

Newspapers must walk a delicate path of stating the extent of the crime while still protecting the identity of the victim. It becomes nearly an impossible challenge when the case involves incest – especially sexual abuse of a minor by a parent.

Here are some questions that should be on a checklist for evaluating whether any story – especially those dealing with sexual abuse – really is fit for publication. Many are taken for granted in the everyday routine of newsrooms. The danger is that they can be overlooked in the rush to get a story, especially in an effort to beat the competition.

Is it news? The equation has multiple variables. For example, what is the impact of reporting a story vs. the impact of not reporting it? Sexual-abuse cases are examples of values that frequently collide when editors seek to balance a victim’s rights with a responsibility to inform – especially when reporting a parent’s sentencing can stir painful childhood memories for a victim.

Stories often have the potential to prompt a review of sentencing patterns. They also can raise the overall awareness of sexual abuse, especially if they include follow-up stories on the signs of sexual abuse and where to turn for help.

Should we publish it? Just because something is true, must all facts be reported? A descriptive narrative of charges often is the more sensitive and bigger problem when reporting from court summaries. Simply reporting that a victim suffered repeated instances of abuse during several years might suffice to give readers a clear picture of the abhorrent circumstances.

What if you were the subject? Insert yourself into the story and you might change the final version. If editors have the opportunity, they also should discuss approaches to stories with their families or other people they hold in high regard.

Did you talk with the subject of the story? Editors should try to interview the involved parties, or at least alert them to the story. Most individuals expect to be contacted if they are the subject of a story, and that’s especially important when dealing with sensitive circumstances.

How will you justify a decision? Sex-abuse stories often force difficult decisions, and, unfortunately, editors and reporters often only discuss the circumstances among themselves. They miss an opportunity to explain to the family their approach to the story. A family’s feedback may well enhance how a newspaper approaches the story, and the editor would have a ready-made column to explain to readers the steps involved in presenting the case.

Is the report fair? Stories may be factual, but does that guarantee balance? Omission of certain information, or failure to get a response from a party, can put a completely different slant on a story. It’s easy to produce a story from a police report or criminal complaint. Getting a comment from the accused is not as easy.

Is it a public or strictly private issue? Newspapers must give equal attention to how a story will affect those directly affected as well as the good provided to the broader community. Victims may well want to keep their case secret, but equal consideration must be given to how coverage of the case will help others. Will the story make a difference?

Will the truth quash rumors? Stories report facts and at the same time serve to dispel myths and innuendoes. It is one of the strongest arguments editors can present to an otherwise unwilling or uncooperative news source.

One of the biggest downfalls in coverage of sex-abuse cases – and other significant criminal prosecutions, for that matter – is to not take advantage of the time to discuss and pursue all angles for comprehensive coverage. Newspapers might have only limited time to sort through the actual court proceedings and sentencing, but staffs likely have weeks and even months to sort through questions and prepare for coverage once the criminal complaints are filed.

Editors might even consider sharing a story in advance with key participants. Many journalists reject the idea of letting someone preview a story, and for good reason. The practice can result in problems, not the least of which is setting a precedent. But sometimes pre-publication review – with explicit ground rules established in advance – can be worthwhile.

Reviewing a story – or at minimum discussing the parameters of coverage – with the appropriate individuals does not assure that everyone will leave the room on the same page. However, it’s likely that all parties – the victim, the community and the newspaper – will be better served had a discussion occurred.