Monday, February 13, 2012

Some cases of child sex abuse call for extra-careful attention to description; proper grammar can help

The staff of the Salisbury Post in rural North Carolina learned a lesson from the Poynter Institute about careful phrasing of stories and headlines about certain types of sexual abuse involving children, reports Mallary Tenore of Poynter. The daily newspaper published a story about a victimized 11-year-old girl with the headline "Mother finds daughter performing sex act on man staying in home." That language, Tenore writes, made it seem like the man was innocent. She contacted the Post's editor, who quickly changed the wording in online versions of the story to say the girl had been assaulted. The reporter said he was trying to avoid using the graphic language contained in the police report.

"Writing about rape and sexual assault is challenging, and police reporters have been dealing with these kinds of language issues for years," Tenore writes. It's easy for reporters to use words like "perform" when translating police-report jargon, she says, but cautions against it: "This word is particularly misleading; it's associated with theater and suggests that someone is one stage, acting or seeking attention." She reports a Google search reveals that "perform" is commonly used in similar sex-crime stories, and even The New York Times and Los Angeles Times have published similar, misleading wording, Tenore reports.

Poynter's Kelly McBride told Tenore that sentence structure is very important in stories about sex crimes, noting it's easy to use passive voice when trying to not assign blame to someone who hasn't been convicted. But, she said, it's best to make the perpetrator the subject of a sentence and assign verbs to him or her. The victim should be the direct object of the sentence to prevent unfairly assigning agency to them. Tenore writes, "We do our readers a disservice when we use language that changes or distorts meaning. We don't have to be graphic, but we do have to be clear." (Read more)

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