Readers criticize New York Times for ‘confusing sex & rape’ in Penn State coverage

The New York Times
Some readers have criticized The New York Times for using the term “sexual assault” instead of “rape” when referring to the Penn State incident. It wasn’t until four days into the coverage that the Times began using “rape” to describe what happened.

Times Ombudsman Arthur Brisbane said the word “rape” is in flux, and that the Times’ Stylebook says it should be used to mean “forced intercourse, or intercourse with a child below the age of consent.” Brisbane talked with sports editor Joe Sexton about the issue:

[He] told me the paper had “no reluctance to use ‘rape’ ” and was not trying “to somehow shy away from the graphic nature of the allegations.” He said the charges included a variety of acts, so the paper had used “sexual assault” to cover the range. Further, he said, the paper’s reporting on Penn State officials’ accounts of their actions required careful wording, as none of them besides the graduate assistant had acknowledged that rape was involved.

Brisbane said journalists should be as specific as possible. “Victims’ advocates echo what the readers told me in their e-mails: language in news media reports — and, for that matter, in the court system itself — consistently underplays the brutality of sex crimes and misapplies terms that imply consent,” Brisbane wrote.

Related: The Times was criticized earlier this year for its coverage of a gang rape in Cleveland, Texas. The subject in that case was an 11-year-old girl, and readers raised questions about language that suggested the sex was consensual. The Times’ follow-up story corrected, and repeated, some of the same mistakes.

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