Monday, June 18, 2012

Rape and the Language of Reporting

*Trigger warning: in discussing reporting, I quote some descriptions of sexual assault.*

I've been loosely following the Jerry Sandusky rape and sexual abuse trial. Since I have not been obsessively following the coverage, I don't have a whole lot to say about how the prosecution is handling the case. I do, however, have an issue with how the mainstream media has been covering the trial.

It all started when I read this article at FoxNews from Reuters reporter Ian Simpson. (I don't know how I keep ending up at FoxNews; I blame Google News.) The first thing that struck me was how offensive the idea was that the defense would be introducing testimony claiming Sandusky's letters to his victims were the product of his histrionic personality disorder, not pedophilia. What bothers me about this is pretty obvious--just because he had a personality disorder does not excuse his abusive behavior toward minors. 

What really struck me, though, was later in the short article. Simpson writes:

Prosecutors allege Sandusky had physical contact with the boys over a 15-year period that ranged from tickling and a "soap battle" in Pennsylvania State University football showers to oral and anal sex.
 Emphasis mine. Now, the defense attorneys are simply doing their jobs by digging up ridiculous excuses for the alleged sexual predator. Simpson, on the other hand, is not doing his job; he is misleading the public by not calling rape rape. The prosecutors are not alleging that Sandusky had sex with anyone: they are alleging that he raped and sexually assaulted minors. Assault and rape are not interchangeable with sex. 

(So much more after the jump.)

Don't believe me? I can understand why you wouldn't want to take someone with a literature degree's word on the importance of language. How about someone getting their doctorate in Psychology? Charity Wilkinson wrote on the language of unwanted sex vs. rape and the effect it had on victim blaming for her dissertation in 2008. You can read the whole dissertation here. Most important for our purposes is her findings:

When ‘unwanted sex’ was used participants perceived that less punishment was appropriate. Additionally, when ‘unwanted sex’ was used or the assault was committed by an acquaintance, participants were less likely to indicate that they would report the assault.    
In this study, the terms ‘unwanted sex’ and ‘rape’ were not found to be interchangeable.  Using the term ‘unwanted sex’ seemed to connote that either no crime or less of a crime had  occurred and also increased reported character blame by female respondents. Researchers and
practitioners should carefully choose the words that they use to describe sexual assault to avoid revictimization.  
And that's just from her abstract. The remainder of the dissertation is fascinating and I really appreciate the research she put into it.

So that is clearly about professionals' use of the terms, but that actually makes it more important. We as readers expect reporters to fully research and report the news. We are not fools, so we understand that mistakes happen, and of course we all know that media outlets tend to have some sort of agenda. But as readers, we expect journalists to understand the power of their words (it's how they earn their living after all) and to respect that power. Are we to believe that every major media outlet has an agenda of condoning rape and perpetuating the rape culture? I suppose it shouldn't surprise me, but it really would.

There are so many examples of this type of reporting, in this case and in others. I'll share just a few more, but you can feel free to call out irresponsible reporting in the comments on this case or on others that you're following. 

From NBC and MSNBC, we have Kimberly Kaplan and M. Alex Johnson reporting irresponsibly on how victim 9's testimony differed from that of the others:
Previous witnesses testified that Sandusky engaged in oral sex and groped their genitals, and another witness, former Penn State assistant coach Michael McQueary, testified that he saw Sandusky engaging in sex with a young boy in a Penn State shower. But none of the previous witnesses has described the sexual relation as having occurred under extreme force.
(Emphasis mine.) All of these victims were minors, so it would never be sex, anyway, but this is clearly a case about rape, not sex. Call it what it is. Use the "alleged" and "accused of" where it's needed, but don't use sex in the place of the real crime.

What is so bothersome is that while these two reporters are too lazy, inept, or otherwise incapable to use the correct language, the Crimesider Staff over at CBS didn't even seem to have to try. When reporting on victim 9, they said, "The victim testified that he was anally and orally raped by Sandusky on more than one occasion." And later in the article they discuss how the victims met Sandusky, saying, "Like most of the other men who have testified that they were sexually abused by Sandusky, Victim 9 said he met Sandusky through his charity." Look! They compared the victims, but not in an offensive way that dismisses or diminishes the testimony or experiences of any of them. and They use appropriate language to boot!

Apparently, the grand jury doesn't know the difference between oral sex and oral rape, either. This CNN article quotes a grand jury report:
The grand jury report cited evidence that Sandusky, who has pleaded not guilty, "indecently fondled Victim 1 on a number of occasions, performed oral sex on Victim 1 on a number of occasions and had Victim 1 perform oral sex on him on at least one occasion."
Perhaps the CNN Wire Staff team felt that excused them from using proper terms, but I'm not going to let them get off that easily. So, I will call them out for referring to assaults improperly. First, they talk about victim 4's testimony, "He said that Sandusky routinely had the then-teenage boy perform oral sex on him while the two showered together on the school's campus and elsewhere." Later, they continue to discuss victim 4's testimony, saying, "Besides the alleged oral sex, Victim No. 4 detailed other instances of alleged abuse, including Sandusky trying to penetrate him in the shower, caressing him and 'kissing ... my thighs.'" I'm sorry (no I'm not), but oral sexual assault is not the same as oral sex and "trying to penetrate him" sounds like they're euphemising attempted rape. And of course, they couldn't help but add the Mike McQueary testimony, "describing what he thought appeared to be Sandusky having anal sex with a boy in a shower inside the university athletic facilities." (Emphasis mine.) Does the pairing of those two words strike anyone else as inherently irresponsible? You cannot have sex with a child because a child is not old enough to consent. Either the "boy" is of age to consent, or this is rape. Plain and simple.

There is another article at CNN by Susan Candiotti and Ross Levitt that takes whole chunks from latter article verbatim. Perhaps these were the authors of the other piece? Regardless, this article includes many of the same problematic pieces as the other.

My take away from this is that we, as a society of people who think rape culture is fucking disgusting and harmful, need to hold writers, editors, and news outlets responsible for their irresponsible use of language in articles like these. Help me call them out by commenting on the articles or better yet, by contacting the writers/editors. 

Does anyone else have articles that we need to call out? What do you all think about the power of language in this type of case? Am I overreacting? Or is it as dangerous as I think it is (contributing to the rape culture, causing doubt for the jurors, etc.)? Let me know in the comments.


  1. Lauren, you are not over-reacting. Language matters. I have been following the trial pretty closely, and I have bristled at a lot of the chosen language: sex for rape, fondling for abuse, inappropriate for criminal. Some media outlets have been appropriating the language that the institution, Penn State, used to justify looking the other way. There is a clear and precise corollary to how the Catholic church used language that minimized the damage to victims and protected abusive priests. Nothing new, but oh so sad. Again.

  2. So true! I am trying to get up the nerve to write about the Catholic church and its use of language to soften the damage in the public eye. I'm especially frustrated when the media appropriates this language because it feels like they are doing PR work for the "accused" abusers and doing nothing to help the "alleged" victims.