On the Responsibility of Proper Reporting on Sexual Abuse

Reporters have a tough job. They need to churn out content quickly, accurately, and often on several different subjects over the course of the day. Reporters also have a powerful job in that their writing can affect the way people think about issues of the day and the way readers talk about those issues, whether gathering around the water cooler or dinner table.

But as the famous quote goes, “with great power comes great responsibility.”

Some recent reporting around a case of sexual abuse in Ohio has brought up an example of a subtle – yet pernicious – error in reporting. In this case, a priest in the Diocese of Steubenville spent years grooming and sexually abusing a young girl. The sexual abuse was revealed when the victim, now 17, became pregnant. Yet several articles on the subject have instead referred to this case as “a relationship” that “lasted three years.”

This is not a simple quibble over diction. The language we read reinforces how we think about a subject, and describing a rape as a relationship can, to an average reader, make them think that somehow the victim actively invited the abuse she experienced. Obviously, reporting on rape in this way is a farce.

To be clear, a 14 year old cannot consent to a relationship with a 45 year old man. This case was not “a relationship,” it was the rape of a teenage girl. To use any other terminology is to downplay the severity of the crime. Similarly, it sends the message to readers that a child is culpable in their rape, that because they were “in a relationship,” they are somehow to blame for what they experienced.

Over the past year, many different events and scandals have brought sexual abuse back to the forefront of the public consciousness. More than ever, people are becoming educated on how and why sexual violence occurs. It is critical that in reporting on cases like this, journalists take care to be clear and direct in reporting what happened. If their sources describe something as a “relationship,” then they should demand their sources explain why they are using that specific terminology.

Journalists have a tough job, but they have a responsibility to do that job properly, especially when reporting on sex crimes. These kinds of cases are already difficult for most people to think and talk about, so to report on them in such a way that sanitizes the issue, downplays the crime, and invites criticism or second-guessing of the victim is simply wrong. All this does is cause further confusion among the public about what sexual abuse looks like, how these kinds of crimes happen, and what should be done to prevent them in the future.

CONTACT: Zach Hiner, Executive Director (zhiner@snapnetwork.org, 517-974-9009)

(SNAP, the Survivors Network, has been providing support for victims of sexual abuse in institutional settings for 30 years. We have more than 25,000 survivors and supporters in our network. Our website is SNAPnetwork.org)


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