As Sandusky trial progresses, what story are the media telling about child sexual abuse?

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Seven months ago, when former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was arrested on charges of child sexual abuse, reporters blanketed the Internet and airwaves with the story. Like much coverage on child sexual abuse, the story was one of outrage, asking how a man respected by so many could commit such heinous acts. But, unlike much past reporting on the issue, journalists told a broader story this time, looking beyond Sandusky — an individual perpetrator — to the larger social and cultural context for abuse. They explored Penn State's negligence and pointed to the need for greater institutional accountability.

So how are the media covering the issue now that Sandusky's case has gone to trial, and child sexual abuse is back in the spotlight? A brief scan of recent coverage seems promising, with many journalists continuing to underscore the role of major institutions like Penn State in fostering abuse. For example, a June 17 Washington Post article highlights evidence for the role of many actors — not just Sandusky — in the occurrence of child sexual abuse at Penn State: "[This trial] is shaping up as more than simply a matter of one man's guilt or innocence. There's a shadow trial underway, because if the prosecution's case is correct, many people and important institutions failed to keep Sandusky from preying on boys despite direct eyewitness evidence that he was a pedophile."

Similarly, Maureen Dowd's June 13 op-ed in The New York Times emphasizes others' complicity. She describes how Penn State staff turned a blind eye, as when a wrestling coach walked in on Sandusky and a boy lying face-to-face and accepted Sandusky's excuse that they were practicing a wrestling hold. Dowd posits that "it was an open joke in Penn State football circles that you shouldn't drop your soap in the shower when Jerry was around." The op-ed also follows another trend BMSG noticed in early Sandusky coverage: The language she uses to describe child sexual abuse is more explicit than is typical in reporting on this issue. This is a good thing, since specificity helps convey the serious nature of the crime: "Sexual abuse" is vague in comparison to the allegation that Sandusky "forced [boys] to give and receive oral sex, and attempt anal sex."

Some articles even put forward specific ideas about how to prevent child sexual abuse in the future. In a commentary posted June 15 on ESPN.com, LZ Granderson notes that prominent organizations dedicated to youth athletics are taking new measures to make kids safer. For example, the Amateur Athletic Union will conduct mandatory background checks on all coaches and volunteers in addition to creating other procedures to ensure safety (although the article doesn't elaborate on what these are). Granderson also addresses prevention more generally by calling on the collective "we" to protect children from harm, warning that if we don't, "we may not be guilty of any wrongdoing but we're hardly innocent."

Of course, not all coverage on the Penn State sexual abuse scandal delves into institutional accountability. Many articles focus narrowly on Sandusky and the progression of his trial. An article published June 14 in the Los Angeles Times is a case in point. Titled "Jerry Sandusky Trial: Day 4 Begins, with Two Portraits Emerging," the article skims over the role of other Penn State actors in the abuse and oversimplifies Sandusky himself. By characterizing his personality as composed of "two sides" — one a saint, the other a predator — the writer creates a false dichotomy. Victim testimony makes clear that Sandusky used his heart-of-gold persona as a predatory tactic. Sandusky allegedly identified at-risk young people through his charity, offered gifts and attention, and then sexually exploited them. In addition, other recent news on the case diverts attention away from both institutional and individual culpability by focusing on the highly disputed "histrionic personality disorder" defense.

As the Sandusky trial wraps up, advocates concerned about child sexual abuse should feel encouraged by trends in the coverage of the issue: Reporters and columnists are talking about the responsibility of institutions to uncover and stop abuse; they're using clear language that conveys the seriousness of the allegations; and at times, they're bringing prevention into the frame. When reporting does this, when it gives a clear and nuanced picture of the context in which abuse takes place, it becomes easier to talk about child sexual abuse as a larger public health issue, rather than as the depraved transgressions of a single person. This approach will help lead to meaningful solutions that keep children safe.


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