How to Write about Penn State and Rape

Interesting piece by Arthur Brisbane, the Public Editor for the New York Times. In the article, he discusses reader complaints about the way the New York Times has been discussing the Sandusky case, in particular its use of the term sexual assault over rape of a child to describe the rape of a 10 year old boy in the showers that was witnessed by Joe McQueary. In some ways, readers vilify the paper for not excoriating Sandusky (the first comment in the comment section does the same). Yet, a paper cannot and should not assume guilt until Sandusky has been tried in a court of law. I’ve been reading Judith Flanders’s Invention of Murder, and one of the things that is a common thread in that text is how the nineteenth century press would essentially convict alleged murders before they’d even been tried. Flanders implies that more than one alleged murderer, especially some of the working class woman poisoners, were hung on scant evidence. But the press assumed their guilt and published every rumor that came their way.

In other ways, the complaints come from the evolving nature of the story. News paper writers work in a world where stories can change in seconds. (They also have business managers worrying about libel issues.) I think caution was perhaps prudent as the story broke and reporters scrambled to better understand the facts. One of the interesting comments was a complaint that the story had moved off the front page and into the Sports section. Yet, it is a sports story and the reporters with the best knowledge and most connections and sources would be those who write for Sports. I’m not saying the Times should not have called the acts they described as sexual assault rape of a child. It’s the mental connection I made, but I think they pulled back on their word choices until more information could be obtained. Nor are most Sports and news reporters trained to write about rape. Perhaps they should be, but as of right now, they’re not.

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