From the Prevention Institute: Reporters can do better: Media coverage of Sandusky trial amplifies shame/silence of sexual abuse

From http://www.preventioninstitute.org

Reporters can do better: Media coverage of Sandusky trial amplifies shame/silence of sexual abuse

Read the original article on the Huffington Post. 2012-01-11-images-pamelapic2.jpgThis article was co-authored with Pamela Mejia. Mejia is a Research Associate at the Berkeley Media Studies Group, where she analyzes how the media talks about public health and social issues. She was a lead author on “Breaking News on Child Sexual Abuse.”

People are still talking about Penn State. This week, a judge released the timeframe for the events leading up to the trial of former defensive coach Jerry Sandusky. His arrest last November triggered a wave of news coverage. But what is the media coverage saying, and how might it affect the public conversation as Sandusky’s trial moves forward?

A new study, Breaking news on child sexual abuse: Early coverage of Penn State by the Berkeley Media Studies Group, commissioned by the Ms. Foundation for Women analyzed the first nine days of coverage. The study found gaps in reporting that should be fixed so that news coverage reaches past a single case to investigate how to prevent child sexual abuse, including what institutions can do.

The Bad News
There is room for journalists to improve their coverage. For one thing, though more than half of the news and general coverage introduced the idea that Penn State University bore institutional responsibility for the abuse, the great majority of the coverage focused on Sandusky’s culpability. As we discussed in an earlier Huffington Post column, coverage that focuses on the ‘bad guy’ misses the point that institutions were using their power to silence the scandal and were in large part responsible for the sexual abuse continuing and the large number of victims.

Where are the survivors? The survivors themselves were almost entirely absent from the coverage. Instead, former head football coach Joe Paterno dominated- the news talked about him more than any other figure, and the coverage was overwhelmingly laudatory. In fact, the coverage was over three times as likely to discuss the consequences of the allegations for Paterno, as it was to talk about the consequences for the survivors.

Where was prevention? Finally, and perhaps most critically, solutions to child sexual abuse and discussion of prevention were virtually non-existent in the coverage. Stories like this are important for opening up the issue, but news coverage is still are not yet talking about ways to prevent children from being abused, and how institutions themselves bear responsibility for perpetuating–or reducing–incidents of child sexual abuse.

The Good News
Sports reporters get the story.
The news coverage of the Sandusky case attracted many sports writers to the issue, some of whom were likely covering the topic for the first time. Almost one half (48%) of the initial coverage appeared in the sports sections. Child sexual abuse shouldn’t just be relegated to the crime section – especially when coaches and other sports professionals are involved.

Much reporting calls a rape a rape. Though Sandusky and his lawyer notoriously tried to downplay the allegations with phrases like “horsing around,” most of the news avoided repeating this minimizing language, and instead used phrases like “rape,” “sexual abuse,” and “sexual assault.” In cases of child sex abuse, when the news media doesn’t “soft pedal the enormity of the abuse perpetrated,” readers have a clearer picture of what the survivors experienced, and may better understand why prevention is critical.

Reporters–and their sources, advocates for prevention–can do better. The media spotlight won’t shift from Sandusky and Penn State anytime soon: journalists and advocates can take advantage of this opportunity to work to improve the coverage of child sexual abuse, and expand it to push for policies that will institute prevention.

Reporters can keep the issue on the sports pages and elsewhere in the news. The Penn State scandal is just the most recent and public instance of a crime that happens every day, one that, according to the Philadelphia Children’s Alliance, “flourishes in secrecy.” To help end that secrecy, keep the spotlight on the issue beyond the current news cycle. Explore other sports stories on child sexual abuse: Investigate what coaches, teams, and schools are doing to make sure it doesn’t happen in their institution. Reporters need to shine a light on our accepting environment, expose the norm that child sexual abuse is an every day occurrence, and cover institutional and policy changes that would better support victims and penalize cover ups. Their stories need to show that young people are more important than sports heroes.

Advocates can release their comments to the media quickly. Many of the statements released by advocacy groups did not appear in the media until well after the first week of coverage and therefore could not be quoted by journalists as the story broke. If prevention advocates want to contribute to breaking news, they will need to respond faster and let reporters know what sorts of information and insights they can bring to a story.

Advocates and reporters can push for solutions. Advocates can suggest policies and programs that can shift the focus to prevention. Reporters can talk to advocates, researchers, policy makers and others in authority and push them for answers to these and other important questions about how to prevent future abuse. Reporters should ask: “What can we do to prevent another Penn State?” “What are communities already doing?” Media coverage of the tragedies that occurred at Penn State has helped open unprecedented and vital conversations about child sexual abuse. As the story continues to unfold, journalists and advocates have a unique opportunity to shift the conversation to what can be done to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

My Stories: Stacy M.

 

It seems that I can’t turn on a news program lately without hearing discussions about the Penn State University child sexual abuse scandal. Nor does it seem that I can browse the pages of this newspaper without finding several stories weekly about child pornography and pedophiles. It feels very much like we have reached a turning point as a society where we are beginning to become educated and speak openly about childhood sexual abuse, the perpetrators and victims and the psychology and complexity behind all of it. Sadly, the sexual abuse of children is far more common than most of us ever thought (I’ve read that one in four girls and one in five boys will be a victim of sexual assault by the time they are 18 years old) and by the time a child molester is caught, he has already victimized an average of 117 children. The good news is that these crimes are coming out of the shadows and hopefully as a society we will become less tolerant and more aware of how this happens and how to recognize and prevent it.

The Jerry Sandusky sex abuse accusations coincidentally have taken over the airwaves as I await the trial or sentencing of my daughter’s molester and the spotlight that has been put on these crimes has shown so many similarities between these two perpetrators, as well as others in the news. My daughter’s molester was her step-father for a little over a decade and if you would have asked me as recently as two years ago if he were capable of sexually abusing a child, I would have said absolutely not. He was educated, had helped in the raising of some of his younger siblings and his three biological children whose mother is a seemingly smart, professional woman, a doting and protective mother and certainly wouldn’t have knowingly raised children with a pedophile – nor would I. But we did. One of the detectives working on this case that specializes in helping child sex abuse victims worked with an officer for about eight years and was shocked when it was revealed that he was in possession of child pornography. Another detective specializing in internet child porn cases once had to arrest his next-door neighbor for these crimes – a person who had sat at his own dinner table and shared a meal with his family. That’s one of the scariest things about these predators – they are master manipulators and usually have everyone in their lives fooled. They are puppet masters, creating scenarios to get close to their prey and keeping others from unveiling their dark secrets. Jerry Sandusky started a charity for underage boys from dysfunctional families who were very easy prey for him. A recent local molestation story involved a man who ran a day care – a situation where parents literally handed his victims over to him. There was also a Pattee Canyon campground host who molested at least four little girls. Camping is a situation where kids run with a bit more freedom than usual and the opportunities were likely abundant for that predator. I remember my daughter’s molester telling me on more than one occasion that before being with me, he would often see young mothers and their children in grocery stores and always felt like that’s what he wanted for himself – a young woman with little kids. I had no idea that it was likely the children that appealed to him, not their mothers.

Watching an interview with the mother of one of Sandusky’s victims and hearing her talk about how her son told her that Jerry was a “weirdo” but she was unable to mentally make the leap and recognize that he was a molester was eerily similar to my situation. My daughter, at age seven or eight, told me one day that she didn’t want her step-father to give her a massage anymore. I asked her when he had given her a massage and if it hurt her or was uncomfortable. She said it was uncomfortable and, hearing our discussion, the step-father jumped in and said, “What? What is she saying to you?” I told him what she had said and my little girl looked at him and said, “I don’t want you to do that anymore”. He chuckled and said, “Ok. I’ve never been very good at giving massages.” That was it – a very defining moment because my little girl thought that she had communicated that something wasn’t right, I failed to make the mental leap that a bad massage meant that this man that I knew and trusted was a pedophile, and he took control. He had been starting the grooming process with her by increasingly expanding where and how he touched her, beginning with simply massaging her back but reaching just a bit further each time. I’ve recently learned that the next time he did that to her back then, he told her (in true pedophile fashion), “Don’t tell anyone, you almost got me in trouble last time.” For the next several years (until she was 14), my daughter lived in a cycle of bribery, confusion and blurry memories of waking up to this man fondling her. There’s no way of knowing what she, or other potential victims of his slept through or were too young to remember.

There were lots of arguments between him and me over the years because he favored my daughter over my son, giving her gifts and lots of extra attention. He claimed that it was because he had grown up with only brothers and always said, “Little girls are special – I always made sure my own daughter had nice things.” I struggled to figure out why my daughter had such a hard time concentrating in school and received average grades despite her obvious intelligence. He often blamed it on the absence of her biological father, though I’ve since learned that inability to focus in school is very common among sexual abuse victims. Over the years, I suffered from anxiety and a constant nagging feeling that something wasn’t quite right, but allowed my spouse to convince me that those feelings were my fault and that I was insecure and paranoid.

This man, like Jerry Sandusky, had good long-time friends, worked full time and was loved by his own children. There were many good times over the years – camping trips with all of our kids, birthdays, graduations and lots of sporting events. Never in a million years would I have guessed that things would end the way they did. It was as if the man I trusted and loved had two identities living in one body. That seems to be the realization with which people who know a pedophile must come to terms – these people can compartmentalize their two halves in a way that seems impossible. This man was a co-worker to many, an employee to some, a good friend and confidant to others. He was a father, a son, a brother and the majority of people who knew him would have described him as a good guy. We all hate pedophiles and child molesters in theory, but it’s a difficult journey to wrap your mind around the fact that you already know and maybe even love one. I’ve learned from several experts that pedophiles develop their attraction to small children (some prefer boys, others prefer girls) in their teen years and a huge majority of them were sexually abused themselves.

The road to getting caught for most of these molesters is long and rocky, as they will do anything to protect their secret. I spent the final year and a half with my daughter’s molester getting into arguments and defending myself against his delusions. Reintroducing alcohol into his life after many years of sobriety made it very difficult for him to maintain his two separate identities and his façade crumbled. Fearing his secret coming out and knowing that I wanted out of the relationship due to his drinking, he went on the offensive attempting to preemptively discredit me in the event that I learned the truth. He accused me of cheating on him with one man, then four or five, then dozens. Ugly fights occurred in front of my children and when I left him, he spread his delusions and lies among his family members portraying himself as a victim who had been cheated on then abandoned. That’s when it began to click. I remembered how he had told me similar things about another woman long ago – tales of infidelity and abuse, painting a picture of himself as a victim. I remembered him ranting many years prior about the fact that he felt that he hadn’t had any privacy and always felt under suspicion – essentially laying the groundwork for me to give him space and not question his behavior. These were the same things he was saying about me now, that I cheated, was abusive to him and snooped into his private business.

On Thanksgiving 2010, he sent my daughter a text attacking my character and that was the final straw for her. She told me that night that she remembered several times waking up to him touching her over the years. She said that the last time he did it, she was 14 years old. I confronted him about it and he claimed that one time, in his sleep, something may have accidentally happened. My daughter insisted that it wasn’t one time and it wasn’t an accident – she remembered him molesting her on several occasions over many years. I discussed the situation with my therapist and, following his guidance, we discussed these things with child protective services and then the police. This is one of the things about childhood sexual abuse that many people don’t understand. Why didn’t she say something sooner? Why are so many of Jerry Sandusky’s victims coming forward now, many years after the crimes occurred and after others were victimized? That’s all a part of the complex psychology of this kind of crime. When kids are very little and they are being abused in this way, they often don’t know that it’s wrong. It doesn’t hurt and sometimes even feels good. By the time they understand how wrong the behavior is, they feel as if they have been a participant in something bad because they didn’t speak up sooner. Some fear the repercussions such as not being believed, anger from those who care about the pedophile and potential revenge from the abuser or his supporters. Most suffer guilt because they often have an otherwise close relationship with their abuser despite the pain and dysfunction he has caused. In Sandusky’s case, he spent many hours, days and even years mentoring his victims. Many of Sandusky’s victims are now speaking up because they know that they are not alone. My daughter finally felt safe speaking up after she was sure that I was not going back to her former step-father.

After my daughter came forward, her abuser’s home was raided and a huge amount of child pornography was found – videos and images of little girls from toddlers to teens being raped and sexually assaulted. Police told me that some of the girls could be heard crying in the videos while being raped. He had saved much of it to CDs and much more was found to have been downloaded on his computer. This all hit me like a ton of bricks and has taken many months to process. How could I not have known? I thought back to all of the times that I watched the Dateline “To Catch a Predator” shows on TV and my daughter’s molester acted appropriately disgusted by the adult men preying on underage girls. He even once told me that those guys should be shot. I remembered a time when I told him about a man who tried to sexually assault me when I was very young and he said that he wished he knew who that was because he’d kill him.  He seemed very protective of his own children and step-children. Many times, I told them that they were lucky to have such a good father figure in their lives. None of it fit or made sense but it was all true – the evidence was clear and abundant and was followed by his confession.

There are several people in this man’s life who are still struggling with pain and confusion, looking for someone else to blame (many of them choosing me or my daughter), and who have a long road of grieving and breaking through denial ahead of them. The initial reaction by some of his supporters was similar to the crowds of Penn State students who rioted, turned over a news van and loudly protested Paterno’s firing. We received an onslaught of text messages and emails, some calling my daughter a liar, one telling me I belong in prison with him, and several disowning both of us. I was accused of “thriving” on the terrible circumstances and of allowing the abuse to take place because the perpetrator helped pay my bills. In reality, I paid a large portion of our household expenses and a significant amount of his earnings, I now know, was spent on child pornography and a gambling addiction he was hiding. And, any mother who has been in my situation can attest to the fact that they would NEVER knowingly allow someone to molest their child. Whether such an accusation is made out of ignorance, denial or cruelty, the additional pain caused to a pedophile’s victims is the same. People that my daughter loved have been cut off from her life and people who she thought would love and protect her have failed to show concern about her recovery or to reach out to her in any way, instead, they are more concerned about the fate of her molester and spreading rumors that the molestation charges have been dropped (essentially still suggesting that the crimes never happened).

Again, the similarities have come to light with the Sandusky accusations. Once the veil had been lifted and the truth revealed, Jerry Sandusky minimized his behavior, claiming to have “horsed around in the shower” with young boys. The local day care provider recently convicted of molestation claimed that the little girl he sexually assaulted was “four going on forty” and very provocative. The Pattee Canyon campground host who has molested at least four young girls said that when he has one drink too many, his hands “start to wander”. During his confession to police, my daughter’s molester said in regard to her, that he had “crossed the line a few times,” as if all adults are somehow teetering on the edge, resisting the urge to molest children. Regarding all of the child pornography, police asked if he had any pictures or videos of my daughter and he replied that the stuff he had was just “generic kids”.  I suppose the perpetrators of these crimes have to minimize their actions in their own minds in order to live with themselves and maintain their false image on a daily basis.

As disturbing and frightening as it is that these crimes are so common and the perpetrators are so difficult to identify, I am pleased to see that we, as a society, are beginning to become educated about this subject. I am thankful that my daughter was brave enough to speak the truth, strong enough to deal with the re-victimization she has endured and has a great therapist and many supportive people who love her and will help her recover. I am proud to say that she is now on the high honor roll in school and on track to graduate a year early. If more people feel safe to speak up and more people understand how to properly respond, the cycle of sexual abuse can began to be broken. Victims will have a greater chance of recovering and perhaps pedophiles will find the courage to admit what they are, deal with what happened to them and seek the help they need rather than continuing to harm our children and their own families.

- Stacy M.