Memo to headline writers: Child sex abuse is not a ‘sex scandal’

Spurred by Xeni Jardin’s tweet about coverage of charges of child sexual abuse at Penn State — “A ‘sex scandal’ is when someone has an affair. Raping children is something else” — I looked for examples of news outlets using the phrase. A few headlines culled from Google News:


The difference between sexual abuse and a sex scandal, Audrey Ference writes at The L Magazine, is that a sex scandal involves consensual sex. “Calling rape a sex scandal,” she writes, “reinforces the idea that it’s equally bad to get caught messing around on your wife as it is to rape someone.”

Searches for “sex abuse” have tripled since Saturday, when the grand jury indicted former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, according to Google Trends. But searches for “sex scandal” also have increased by at least the same amount. During the debate over the so-called “ground zero mosque,” Poynter’s Kelly McBride wrote about the role that search-engine optimization plays in headlines. || Longstanding problem: “The nomenclature surrounding ‘sex crimes’ is already hopelessly sterile, and the media routinely refers to cases of rape and sexual assault as ‘sex scandals,’ ” writes Tommy Christopher. (Mediaite) || Related: Poynter Review says ESPN’s early coverage of Penn State sexual abuse scandal slow, ‘tone-deaf

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  • Anonymous

    The point of the article was the way in which the situation is being presented by the media. Perceptions are managed and manipulated by the choice of words. And “sex scandal” in modern parlance carries the connotation of a nasty little gossip item involving consenting adults and hence is less horrific than “child sexual abuse” which is a disgusting criminal act. One could characterize Watergate as a ”political intrigue” but in fact it was burglary and espionage.  On Nov 11, 2011, Disqus <> wrote:

     

       

     

    Sclannad wrote, in response to jbspry: But it’s still a scandal, it’s just not a “sex scandal.” Why is this so difficult? “Sex scandal” is widely understood (except, apparently, among some headline writers) to mean someone committing adultery or seeing prostitutes. This is about sexual violence against children, not a politician caught having a romp with his secretary. Applying the same descriptor to both puts them on an equal level. Yeesh. As for the focus of the story: I don’t think anyone’s forgetting about the kids. But this went on for years, with a bunch of people involved. It’s a scandal of monumental proportions. 
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    jbspry wrote:
    “Scandal” places the focus of the negative fallout on the perp: scandal ruins reputations. “Abuse” is the proper word because the reputations of these men is nothing compared to the damage inflicted on the victims.

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  • Anonymous

    But it’s still a scandal, it’s just not a “sex scandal.” Why is this so difficult? “Sex scandal” is widely understood (except, apparently, among some headline writers) to mean someone committing adultery or seeing prostitutes. This is about sexual violence against children, not a politician caught having a romp with his secretary. Applying the same descriptor to both puts them on an equal level. Yeesh. 

    As for the focus of the story: I don’t think anyone’s forgetting about the kids. But this went on for years, with a bunch of people involved. It’s a scandal of monumental proportions. 

  • Anonymous

    But it’s still a scandal, it’s just not a “sex scandal.” Why is this so difficult? “Sex scandal” is widely understood (except, apparently, among some headline writers) to mean someone committing adultery or seeing prostitutes. This is about sexual violence against children, not a politician caught having a romp with his secretary. Applying the same descriptor to both puts them on an equal level. Yeesh. 

    As for the focus of the story: I don’t think anyone’s forgetting about the kids. But this went on for years, with a bunch of people involved. It’s a scandal of monumental proportions. 

  • Anonymous

    This makes no sense whatsoever. 

  • Anonymous

    This makes no sense whatsoever. 

  • Anonymous

    “Scandal” places the focus of the negative fallout on the perp: scandal ruins reputations. “Abuse” is the proper word because the reputations of these men is nothing compared to the damage inflicted on the victims.

  • Anonymous

    Excellent point.
    The news establishment sees every story as wares to be sold in the marketplace; “sex scandal” has more salacious appeal and hence more market value than “sex abuse”. Abuse is a downer – scandal is an upper.

  • Anonymous

    The rape charges are allegations and haven’t been proved. Thus, one could argue that “sex scandal” is less prejudicial than “child rape scandal.” It is a scandal and sex is involved. One could say “child rape charges” but that takes more words in a headline. The story is really not underplayed if one uses “sex scandal.” Anyone who reads the lead will know what it’s all about. (Attn Julie: I have used quotation marks in keeping with the blog’s style.)

  • http://profiles.google.com/dmhaakenson David Haakenson

    Steve, You make some excellent points. Finding the right words to describe the severity of a story is sometimes difficult. Even your earlier post referred to it as a scandal: ”Particularly galling: A post, published Monday, about how the scandal would affect recruiting.”

    To me, there’s also a problem with the word ‘sex’. Rape is a horrific act of violence and assault. I think scandal is appropriate if used as ‘child rape scandal’.

  • Elizabeth Quinn

    Even if its not a sex scandal, can we agree that it is a scandal? Scandal:  A publicized incident that brings about disgrace or offends the moral sensibilities of society.  By that definition I would say maybe it IS a sex scandal.