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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Mandatory reporting: what journalists get wrong when they cover child abuse, and how to get it right

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Advocates say current coverage of child abuse often misses the real story and with it, a chance to protect children. 

Beneath the headline  “Log off, log off!” an October 2020 Chicago Tribune article described the sexual assault of a first-grader during a break between virtual school sessions. 

Reading the story, psychologist Dr. Jennifer Cain was disturbed — not just by the criminal behavior it described, but also by the way the Tribune reporters had written it. Though they didn’t name the child, the reporters described the scene in detail and included quotes from the child’s police interviews, shared during a court hearing. Such details, Cain said, can harm young victims and possibly result in copycat crimes. 

“It’s sufficient to say that the child was sexually abused or that the child was sexually assaulted. That’s enough,” Cain said. “There’s way too much risk of harm coming to multiple parties from giving too many details.”

Today, when the internet lets readers find stories decades later, the stakes are higher than ever. Cain worried that one of the child’s future high school classmates might see the story and recall that she was the victim. 

“Imagine that that child had made a great effort to put that behind them, that that was very painful, that they had had no idea, as a 7-year-old, that that had ended up online,” Cain said. “Imagine that child’s shock and humiliation.” 

In response, Cain, a diplomate of the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress, circulated a letter expressing concern about the way news media report on childhood trauma and crimes against children. Nearly three dozen other psychologists and mental health professionals signed on. And the American Psychological Association wrote to Tribune editors, who later removed many details from the story. 

But Cain argues this story is just one example of problematic patterns in the way news media cover child abuse and childhood trauma — and she’s not alone. 

Advocates for child well-being —  from psychologists to survivors to reporters themselves —  say journalists need to rethink the way they cover the harms facing the youngest members of society. They’re calling for changing not only the language and details journalists use, but also the sorts of stories they choose to tell about abuse and trauma. Better coverage, they say, could not only protect today’s victims from media harm but also better equip communities to understand and prevent tomorrow’s abuse.  

‘Why are they doing this?’

When Sarah Welliver left a career in journalism to become a public information officer for the Utah Department of Child & Family Services, she soon found herself trying to explain her former industry to her new colleagues. When social workers in her office would read a news story they found problematic, they’d turn to her, knowing she’d spent a decade in newsrooms.  

“Why are they doing this?” they’d ask.

Welliver found herself on the defensive. “I know, from my time in journalism, newsrooms are full of people who care deeply about their community, wanting to serve that community and make a positive difference,” Welliver said. 

“No one I worked with would want to re-traumatize a child.”

But lots of stories didn’t feel right to her. Some broke rules she’d been taught in the newsroom, such as a story that gave enough clues about a perpetrator’s relationship to his young victim that she could determine the victim’s name and address in just a few web searches. In other cases, something seemed off, but she wasn’t sure the journalist had broken any rules.

“In some cases, it really looked like the reporter took a charging document and they practically copied and pasted it,” including disturbing details, Welliver said.

It’s a crime scene image of a child being raped. When you say ‘child pornography,’ … it sort of conflates it with something that sounds commercialized and consensual.

Camille Cooper, vice president of public policy, RAINN

But she also knew that journalists in shrinking newsrooms have to work ever faster, with little to no training on things like trauma. “I understand the pressure to put up information, and I just wanted to find a way to support that environment with a tool they could use,” Welliver said.

So, with advice from editors and social workers, Welliver wrote “A Journalist’s Guide for Reporting on Child Abuse,” a five-page guide, complete with examples of what to do and what to avoid. Among the eight recommendations: Avoid inadvertently identifying victims, describe the actions in direct terms rather than euphemisms, avoid language that implies consent and empower the community to prevent abuse.

She’s shared the guide through social work circles and, knowing that journalists might be dubious about taking advice from a government spokesperson, she’s worked with journalism organizations like Poynter and the Society of Professional Journalists to spread the word.

The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, the country’s largest sexual violence prevention organization, also recently began an effort to train journalists. In September 2020, the organization piloted a virtual training with the staff of The Fresno Bee, teaching the newsroom to cover sexual assault in a victim-centered and trauma-informed way. (Newsrooms interested in such training can contact RAINN Press Secretary Erinn Robinson at erinnr@rainn.org.)

Meanwhile, the organization’s vice president of public policy, Camille Cooper, thinks another way to ensure widespread change would be to revise the tool that journalists across the country look to for guidance: the AP Stylebook. 

She’d like to see the Stylebook replace the term “child pornography” with “child sexual abuse material.”

“It’s a crime scene image of a child being raped,” Cooper said. “When you say ‘child pornography,’ … it sort of conflates it with something that sounds commercialized and consensual.”

The Stylebook should also instruct reporters to describe all sexual acts with children as “assault” or “rape,” as children cannot give consent, Cooper said. She hasn’t yet brought up those suggestions with Stylebook editors, she said, but she plans to. 

A voice for victims

Also important, advocates say, is to avoid casting victims as powerless, broken or naive. 

“It gives an inaccurate portrayal of the strength of victims and their ability to move forward, their ability to be fully functioning members of society, their ability to be well-spoken, their ability to pick up the pieces of their lives and have successful futures, their ability to be good parents who are going to protect their children and not fall into abusing their children themselves,” said Deondra Brown, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and co-founder of the Foundation for Survivors of Abuse. 

In her own case, after she and her sisters brought sexual abuse charges against her father, it was the reporters themselves who made her feel powerless. She recalls getting a call from a local TV reporter. “They said that they know who the victims are and that they’re prepared to give enough information that everybody else will know, and they wanted us to comment on the allegations,” Brown said.

“I just remember feeling so bullied and pushed into coming out and releasing a statement … It felt like I was losing control of this part of my life and that people were going to then create the narrative of my life instead of me having control over. It felt like I was trapped.”

Fortunately, she said, a friend with experience as a spokesperson helped her and her siblings prepare statements, and they had spouses and friends willing to serve as buffers, reading the news stories for them and letting them know key points they might need to address. 

But many aren’t so lucky. “There are so many victims that are completely on their own and trying to navigate this,” Brown said. 

Having reported her abuse when she was an adult, she wonders what it would have been like to be in the middle of a media frenzy if she’d come forward as a kid. 

“I know the stress and the panic I felt, and I’m an adult,” Brown said. “I have a husband and a supportive group of brothers and sisters. I can’t even imagine being a child and feeling violated in that way.”

‘Just a little more nuance’

The way reporters cover such cases can also determine whether or not other victims choose to come forward. 

“We don’t get the positive messages nearly as much as we should,” Brown said, though she sees progress on that front. She pointed to the National Children’s Alliance’s Shine campaign, which celebrates survivors and their ability to help the next generation of kids.

“Sometimes we just need to take a moment to highlight the good aspects of the things that survivors have done and will continue to do, so that other survivors know that there’s a community, that there are people to look towards and that they’re not alone.”

The way victims are typically shown in the media can lead  many to keep quiet. Among them was Tennessee Watson, now a reporter for Wyoming Public Radio, who waited 25 years to report the gymnastics teacher who sexually abused her when she was 7. 

“What I saw was … that kind of portrayal of someone who had really just been duped and tricked and violated,” Watson said. 

“I was like, ‘Man, people are gonna think I’m pathetic or weak or can’t defend myself, you know. It was just kind of disempowering.”

In her mind, the teacher who’d abused her didn’t match the monsters she saw in news stories or mugshots, and she wasn’t looking for vengeance. “All I would have wanted was just a little more nuance,” she said. 

Sometimes we just need to take a moment to highlight the good aspects of the things that survivors have done and will continue to do, so that other survivors know that there’s a community, that there are people to look towards and that they’re not alone.

Deondra Brown, co-founder of the Foundation for Survivors of Abuse

When Watson reported her abuser to the police in 2013, she was looking, in part, for context. “I wanted someone to help me discern, is what happened to me a big deal?” Watson said. 

She detailed her own court process for an investigative story for the Center for Investigative Reporting’s Reveal that tracked the trajectory of “adult disclosure” child abuse cases like hers. The story explored why so many victims wait to report and just how difficult it is to get a conviction years later. 

Coming forward, Watson discovered, was no guarantee that justice would be done. “Accountability wasn’t baked into that system the way that I thought it might be,” she said. “That was really kind of eye opening for me.”

Today, Watson helps others put the harms they’ve experienced in a broader context, just as she did in her own case. Officially on the education beat, Watson thinks of herself as covering the well-being of children and teens in her state. That’s meant exploring things like group homes, juvenile treatment facilities and abusive clergy

Sources who’ve seen her past stories regularly call her to tell her about what they’ve been through. “Instead of sort of thinking, ‘Does this incident that this individual experienced warrant attention? Is that bad enough?’ — I’m more of a systems thinker. I’m like, ‘How does what this person is telling me fit into potentially larger policy, or does it shine a light on a pattern or a blind spot in public policy?”

Just the other day, she got a call from a grandmother concerned she’d lose custody of her granddaughter. The woman felt the school system and law enforcement were taking a punitive approach when what the teen needed was help. 

“I’m always like, ‘I’m not sure that I’ll be able to change your experience. But what I can do is document what you’re going through and try and connect that to a larger pattern of behavior. And, down the line, you sharing your story could help shape better policy,’” Watson said. “And she was like, ‘Yeah, please come visit.’”

“That’s what I did for myself, and it was a helpful experience for me.”

What’s the real story?

Meanwhile, multiple sources told the Center for Journalism Ethics that many of the sorts of stories they found problematic should simply never have been written. 

“I think there are a fair number of news stories of trauma out there that don’t really serve any positive purpose for anybody knowing about these things,” Cain said. The stories that matter are the ones that give readers tools to prevent similar harms, she said, drawing a comparison to stories about consumer recalls of dangerous high chairs or toys. 

“They don’t need to know the lurid details of how something really drastically bad happened to the child … but they need to know this is not safe and if you are using this particular item, that you need to return to the store for a refund or don’t use it anymore,” Cain said. 

Stories should seek to answer the questions on the minds of concerned parents and caregivers, Cain said. “How can we prevent this tragedy or this awful thing … from happening to our own children? And if something like this has already happened to our children, where can we turn for help? What’s being done in the community to help with prevention and provide assistance?”

Already, reporters covering suicide and self-harm sometimes take this sort of approach. Widely adopted guidelines instruct reporters not to frame suicide as inevitable and to always mention where to find help. Such stories now routinely include the phone number for a suicide prevention hotline. Cain would like to see journalists apply similar practices to covering harm to children.

“There are more hotlines than just suicide hotlines,” Cain said.

Reporting on individual instances of child abuse obscures the realities of the harms that happen to children, said Welliver of the Utah Department of Child & Family Services.

How can we prevent this tragedy or this awful thing … from happening to our own children? And if something like this has already happened to our children, where can we turn for help? What’s being done in the community to help with prevention and provide assistance?

Dr. Jennifer Cain, a diplomate of the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress

“If you were just watching the news … you would think that the biggest problems were extreme cases of physical abuse by horrible people that should never have had kids,” Welliver said, when in fact the majority of what her office deals with are cases of neglect. 

“There are bigger conversations that we should have around that, surrounding the socioeconomic status of our most vulnerable populations, homelessness, financial strain, especially right now with the pandemic,” she said, but the current news coverage doesn’t promote such conversations.

“Where can we as a community support these families so that DCFS never gets that call?” 

A recipe for prevention

Journalists traditionally report on trauma-inducing events like natural disasters and crime in an episodic way, reporting on single events rather than common themes. But multiple studies of “news frames” suggest that that approach can make readers believe the events are random and beyond their control. An alternative approach, called the public health model, puts single events in their social context. That approach, researchers have found, makes readers less pessimistic, more knowledgeable about the issues and more likely to support preventative measures. 

When it comes to child abuse and neglect, Welliver worries the conventional news frame discourages communities from taking steps to protect children.

“Newsrooms need to have these deeper conversations of how they cover crime and what is really necessary,” Welliver said, adding that newsrooms might choose to forego the one-off stories and instead compile a database to track common factors in abuse cases in an effort to uncover causes.

“I think we don’t need to identify that family member or parent and treat it as one thing that happened by the horrible person to their child, because I don’t see, by itself, how that does anything for prevention or community conversation.

“If people don’t understand why something is happening and what they can do about it, nothing changes.”

Cooper from RAINN agrees. “We have a whole host of problems that we’re trying to fix: everything from judges and how they respond to child sexual abuse cases to law enforcement and how they investigate it, Child Protective Services outcomes, trauma-informed care for children,” she said. 

She’d like to see more reporting that shines a light on those systems and on the intersections between them: An abused child who gets sent back to an abusive home might later run away and become a victim of trafficking.

“There’s really a continuum that happens in the life of these children that are victimized sexually, and I’d really like to see some more coverage that provides the linkages for that, to educate the public about how trafficking is related to the system not effectively protecting children the very first time.” 

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