News coverage of the Sandusky case: Lessons for advocates

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The following is a modified reposting of a blog written for the Community Commons website, an interactive resource for leaders from communities, philanthropy, and government agencies, as well as private, academic and civic organizations working together on policy, systems and environmental changes for healthier, more equitable communities. BMSG was asked to moderate the Media and Marketing group. Check it out at communitycommons.org.

One of the fundamental challenges for health advocates is to reframe public debate in ways that focus on the policies and institutions that shape the circumstances affecting people's health. This is especially important given the news media's tendency to frame stories as portraits, focusing on individual people and events rather than on the landscapes that surround them.

One exception to the rule has emerged with the continuing coverage of the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal at Penn State. Although initial reports held a range of actors including Penn State and Sandusky accountable, recent media reports have begun focusing more intensely on institutional accountability.

For example, a July 19 Bloomberg News article, "Penn State evaluating school's culture after child sex coverup," is the latest in a series of reports that have looked at environmental factors that contributed to the problems of child sexual abuse at Penn State.

In the Bloomberg report, Penn State University Board Chairwoman Karen Peetz said a special task force was "evaluating the fundamental culture" of the school after an investigation found university officials covered up the child sexual abuse involving the school's former assistant football coach.

Similar headlines abound. "Freeh report illustrates institutional blindness," writes Tom Barth for the Wilmington Star-News, referring to the scathing report from former FBI chief Louis Freeh that says top officials hushed up the abuse allegations against Sandusky more than a decade ago for fear of bad publicity.

While this strengthens the institutional accountability frame, it is too focused on what punitive measures should be taken against Penn State University and its football program rather than how broader social conditions, such as the pervasive taboo and stigma surrounding child sexual abuse, contribute to what happened at Penn State. Or more importantly, how similar incidents can be prevented.

Also, current coverage provides an institutional frame because it is driven by the recent release of the Freeh report which highlights institutional accountability, so naturally the focus of media coverage is going to be about the report's findings rather than a true analysis of institutional missteps and opportunities for prevention.

Still, this horrific tragedy and its ensuing coverage serve as a reminder for advocates that we can help improve news coverage and include calls for environmental or institutional solutions to public health problems.

Berkeley Media Studies Group has made several recommendations to help child abuse prevention advocates take steps in this direction; however, these tips apply to any advocacy group seeking to reframe public debates so that institutional accountability and other environmental factors are present in news media reports.

  1. Release statements to the public and to the media quickly. If prevention advocates want to contribute to breaking news so that the environmental frame that supports policy solutions is more visible, they will need to respond faster and let reporters know what sorts of information and insights they can bring to bear on a story.
  2. Develop relationships with journalists. Reporters will be more likely to seek out prevention advocates as sources for breaking news if they know who they are.
  3. Consider using specific language when discussing child sexual abuse and other sensitive public health concerns. The more specific advocates are, the more able they will be to help reduce confusion and possible misinterpretation of their issue.

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