News coverage of child abuse and neglect wasn’t a daily part of my life until after my career as a journalist ended in 2018. When I started working for the Utah Division of Child and Family Services as its public information officer, I quickly found myself in the deep end of Utah’s child welfare system.
I was a month into my new role when I saw my first news brief identify a victim of child sex abuse.
The victim’s name wasn’t used, but it didn’t matter. Her age and gender, the alleged perpetrator’s full name, age, city of residence and the fact that he was the child’s next-door neighbor were printed clearly. It took me less than 10 minutes to find his address. I wondered how quickly someone could find the victim’s home, her name and what school she attended.
The more stories I read, the more my concern grew. I began noticing excessive details and problematic wording. Some instances directly conflicted with newsroom policies I had followed as a journalist; others didn’t feel right, but discomfort with descriptions of child sex abuse didn’t equate to a good reason for changing a news story.
Most reporter guides I found on best practices dealt with responsible interviewing, and those related to rape and assault primarily focused on adults. One exception was a publication from the National Children’s Advocacy Center, but I wanted a tool for news organizations that shared both reasoning and solutions.
After researching studies on secondary victimization and news coverage of child abuse, and with input from child advocates, social workers and journalists, I developed the Journalist’s Guide to Reporting on Child Abuse. Here are a few of the key takeaways, and why newsrooms need to talk more about this:
Every time journalists publish news about abuse, they are sharing a story of someone’s trauma. The public’s right to know doesn’t negate this fact. Reporters need to thoughtfully consider what is truly necessary for informing public safety, community education and action, and what might be harmful or re-traumatizing for victims. There is an important difference between an accurate account and a sensational retelling of a traumatic event.
This doesn’t mean you should soften language or take away from the seriousness of the crime. When providing descriptions of any abuse, avoid euphemisms and instead use medical or legal terms. A good example of this is non-consensual sex — it’s called rape.
If a victim isn’t old enough to legally give consent, ensure your story reflects that. An easy way to accomplish this is by familiarizing yourself with your state’s consent laws. For example, in Utah, a child 13 or younger cannot legally give consent. For minors 14-15 and 16-17, it’s sexual abuse or unlawful sexual contact, depending on the age of the adult involved.
With that in mind, would the headline “Man arrested for sexual relationship with 13-year-old boy” be accurate? What about “Teacher accused of having affair with teen he met online?”
Sexual abuse is not a relationship, and repeated sexual abuse is not an affair. It’s important to remember that teens are just as susceptible to grooming by predators, especially by those in positions of trust. The national nonprofit Darkness to Light has some useful information on grooming and red flag behavior.
Public perceptions of child abuse are largely derived from the news. It doesn’t matter if the information comes from official sources or is already publicly available elsewhere. As a member of the media you provide a platform that is more accessible than a courthouse kiosk, and you are responsible for what you choose to publish.
Studies have shown (1, 2, 3) that sensational, episodic stories of abuse can oversimplify and distract from the often complex socioeconomic problems that lead to abuse (poverty, unemployment, mental illness and drug abuse). Framing the incident as a tragic event by a monstrous perpetrator can deter larger community conversations about prevention.
Don’t wait for the next arrest brief to talk about child abuse and neglect in your state. Reach out to child abuse prevention organizations, advocates and state welfare agencies. Find regional and state data to gain an accurate picture of abuse in your area. Look for opportunities to provide context and relevant resources to better inform and educate the public through your reporting.
Preventing child abuse is a community effort. Local media needs to be part of the solution, not the problem. As a good friend and mentor would say — because journalism.
You can also find a non-Utah specific version of the guide here.
Sarah Welliver is a former journalist and current public information officer for Utah’s Division of Child and Family Services. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.