It’s never easy to write about sex crimes, and it’s even harder when the crimes involve children. How much detail is needed to help readers understand the allegations? How much is too much?
If we do this the wrong way, we further hurt the victim. Or, we might not give the accused — who has only been accused — a fair shake.
Every word and phrase matters. The placement of the story matters, in print and online. And every headline requires careful consideration.
The allegations this weekend of a systematic sexual abuse of children by a former assistant coach at Penn State called on us to be as careful as possible with every sentence. Here’s a quick look at how we handled that.
1) The documents
We posted the list of 40 charges against Sandusky as soon as we found them a state court web site Friday afternoon. Because they were innocuous, vague and did not threaten to reveal the identity of any victims, this was a quick and easy decision. We needed only to confirm that the Gerald Sandusky listed on that document was in fact the former Penn State coach.
Saturday morning, the Attorney General issued a news release and a link to the grand jury’s presentment. Creating a link to the news release was another easy decision. Not so much for the link to the presentment.
This 23-page document contains graphic details about sexual assaults by Sandusky involving up to eight boys. Even newsroom veterans were shocked and sickened by these details. We read the entire document only because we were paid to do so.
I decided to post a link to this document only after reading it all and taking a few moments to consider it. This will be an important element of establishing the facts. This will be referred to repeatedly in all of our reporting on this issue. This was readily available to the general public. This was already being published by other media.
I also calculated that this would allow us to avoid the most graphic descriptions in our own writing. We could direct readers to the original document if they had a need for the details. But we would not need to get “anatomical” or indecent in our own writing.
We also wrote up a synopsis of the presentment, allowing readers to understand the full scope of their report without having to suffer through a lot of images that might haunt them for a long time to come.
We intend to keep posting every document that comes available in this case. But we will review them and we are prepared to redact personal details or not post something if we find that doing so could cause more harm than good.
2) The language
I spoke with my editors and writers Saturday night about the need to be precise and fair in all phrasing.
We did not want to do anything that would convey a sense of a consensual act in any of these assaults. We discussed whether to describe any of these acts as “rape.” An editor pointed out that in Pennsylvania, the crime of rape specifically describes an assault that can be perpetrated only upon a female. A male can be a victim of “involuntary deviant sexual intercourse” or of a variety of other forms of sexual assault. But rape, in legal terminology, is reserved only for female victims.
On Sunday, we used a headline that some people have taken issue with. It reads, “Sex scandal widens.”
An email I received on Monday states in part,
“I want you to know how disappointed I am at the heading on the front page of yesterday’s page. You wrote, “Sex scandal widens”. When I read the article, I saw that this is a case of rape and child sexual assault. It is not a case of sex! The heading to the article is completely wrong. Sex is not consensual when it involves children. You completely send the wrong message when you write “sex”. Is it because it is boys and men you are writing about? Is it sensationalism and selling papers? Is it because you do not know the difference between sex and rape? I am perplexed by this.
The article states very clearly what the case is about. It is disturbing to all. However, I was equally disgusted at the lack of education or professionalism in the title you chose for the heading.”
We take this sentiment to heart. No one here intended to convey that this was consensual in any way, and I know the headline writer does not think this does convey that. But we need to understand how our words come across, and we renewed our conversations today about the need to find the very best language in regard to this story.
3) The competition
Usually, newsrooms battle royally for exclusives and scoops. Lately, though, we have learned the value of combining resources and sharing information, when appropriate.
For this story, we relied upon three other news sources for a lot of the reporting: The Patriot-News of Harrisburg, The Centre Daily Times in State College and The Associated Press. They had feet on the ground where the story was breaking. They had been invested in the grand jury investigation for months and months.
We applied our resources to finding local connections, such as York County students at Penn State or local people involved with The Second Mile.
But we always took care to independently confirm anything that seemed risky or likely to be misunderstood.
And while we want to hustle out the developments on this story, we have reminded ourselves that it is much more important to be right than to be first.