New Study Shows Media Underreport Child Sexual Abuse, Miss Key Aspects of Issue

Categories: Misc, Other

Criminal justice focus leaves prevention out of the story

BERKELEY, Calif., May 24, 2011 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ — Tens of thousands of children are sexually abused each year in the United States, yet news coverage of the subject is out of sync with both the magnitude of the issue and the context in which it occurs. This finding comes from a study released this month from Berkeley Media Studies Group, a project of the Public Health Institute. The report, Case by Case: News coverage of child sexual abuse, examined national news stories on child sexual abuse published between 2007 and 2009. Fewer than one story a week focused on the topic and even fewer covered the issue in detail.

Several troubling patterns emerged in existing coverage of child sexual abuse:

  • The language used to describe the abuse was often vague and inconsistent. Many articles contained ambiguous phrases, such as “sexual acts,” “inappropriate sexual behavior,” and “lewd and lascivious acts with a child.” Such imprecise language limits the public’s understanding of the issue and disguises its severity.
  • Nearly three quarters (73 percent) of stories were tied to a criminal justice news hook such as an arrest or trial that related to the aftermath of the abuse. This type of coverage puts the emphasis on the perpetrator instead of on the impact the abuse has on victims, their families, and the wider community. Such coverage also portrays child sexual abuse as an isolated event, ignoring its larger social context.
  • Prevention was rarely mentioned. Less than one-third (30 percent) of stories discussed solutions. Of those, the overwhelming majority focused on interventions to address abuse after the fact, while only a handful looked at preventing future abuse.
  • “This report makes it clear that we need to make prevention visible and generate stories of the possibility for social change,” Cordelia Anderson, director of Sensibilities Prevention Services and president of National Coalition to Prevent Child Sexual Abuse & Exploitation, said.

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