How to cover the Freeh Report on Penn State, child sexual abuse

Louis Freeh’s powerful condemnation of Penn State officials is bound to set off a barrage of equally powerful reactions among those who live with the scars of childhood sex abuse.

And there are a lot of people who live with those scars. One in four girls and one in six boys are sexually assaulted by the time they reach age 18. Those numbers are astounding and in many cases adults do not believe this problem is that prevalent. But it is that prevalent. Childhood sexual assault is a common occurrence that transcends all socio-economic barriers. Rich children and poor children of every race are victims of abuse.

In your own newsroom, people who are working on this story are dealing with their own trauma.

In your audience, people who read or watch this story may need support.

In this Aug. 6, 1999 file photo, Penn State head football coach Joe Paterno, right, poses with his defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky during Penn State Media Day at State College, Pa. (Paul Vathis, File/AP)

In your community, survivors will call your newsroom and want to tell their story of adults who failed them, of schools, churches, youth sports leagues and non-profit groups that professed to have the best interests of children in mind and instead turned the other way when they were presented with evidence that adults were raping children.

Newsrooms and websites have a responsibility to delve into the 267-page report on Jerry Sandusky, child sexual abuse and Penn State. Then go beyond it. Focus on your staff, focus on your audience, focus on the local community.

  • Use this as an opportunity to tell people just how often children are sexually assaulted. The studies that show 25 percent of girls and 17 percent of boys are consistent and thorough. They are reinforced anecdotally by the experience of survivors who go public. They will tell you that everywhere they reveal their own personal stories, other survivors step up to say that an adult assaulted them.
  • Use the graphic details and explain why you are using the graphic details. One reason most of us have failed to recognize the epidemic of child sexual assault is because journalists mask the horror with words like “molest” and “fondle” and “perform.” In fact, in many of these cases, adults are raping children. They are raping them orally, anally and vaginally. Our desire to be inoffensive has led to a gross distortion of what really happens.
  • Do a round up of local resources and make those available with every story that you broadcast or publish. Some great national resources include the National Sexual Violence Resource Center and RAINN. Tell your audience about the anecdotal experience of survivors, which shows that those who disclose the abuse, get counseling and in the appropriate setting confront their abusers, fare better emotionally.
  • Make support services available to staff inside the newsroom as well.
  • Beware of perpetuating bad information. Three of the common myths that journalists often stumble into are:
    • Children who are abused are at a high risk of becoming abusers. In fact, most abuse victims do not grow up to abuse.
    • Survivors never recover from the emotional damage.
    • Offenders were likely abused themselves. One study asked offenders under polygraph if they were abused as children and 30 percent reported that they were.

Freeh’s report will likely turn out to be a significant tipping point in America’s collective understanding of how organizations fail when it comes to protecting children.

Freeh, former director of the FBI, identifies key trends that we’ve seen in other systemic breakdowns, including an institutional wish to avoid bad publicity, the desire to spare the assailant humiliation of prosecution, a lack of empathy for the victims, a collective belief that the children are lying, and overall interest in placing the financial needs of the institution in front of the responsibility to care for children.

There are likely small and large institutions everywhere trapped in these same patterns. If journalists don’t hold them accountable, it’s possible no one will.

Related: News University has additional resources on covering child sex abuse.

  • Profile picture for user kellymcbride

    Kelly McBride

    Kelly McBride is a writer, teacher and one of the country’s leading voices when it comes to media ethics. She has been on the faculty of The Poynter Institute since 2002 and is now its vice president.


Related News

Email IconGroup 3Facebook IconLinkedIn IconsearchGroupTwitter IconGroup 2YouTube Icon