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Postscript: Describing the Penn State sexual abuse case

In the case of former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, some of the language used by The Times in describing his alleged misdeeds should have been more precise.

November 19, 2011
  • Former Penn State University assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky is led away by police after being arrested in a sex crimes investigation in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. (Reuters)
Former Penn State University assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky…

The grand jury report that led to former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky's indictment was made public a few days after his arrest. The testimony contained in the report is explicit, leaving no doubt as to the allegations against Sandusky.

However, it poses some difficulty for a family newspaper to report.

Reader Amy Ramos of Santa Barbara thought The Times had been imprecise in descriptions of the case, and she wondered why.

"I have been puzzled by the use of what seems to be unnecessary euphemism in coverage of the Penn State child sexual abuse scandal," Ramos wrote. "There is a reference to the suspect, former coach Jerry Sandusky, 'having sex with a boy in the shower.'

"It seems to me that a grown man engaging in sex with a 10-year-old boy — by its very definition non-consensual — should be called 'rape,' not 'having sex' or even 'being forced to have sex.'

"I see the word 'rape' used in other contexts in The Times, so I'm curious as to why it would not be used in coverage of this story, in which it seems entirely appropriate."

Assistant Managing Editor Henry Fuhrmann responds:

We agree with Ramos that in some of our early stories we resorted to unnecessary euphemism. Whether this was out of squeamishness about the subject matter, an attempt to describe lurid allegations for a family newspaper, or more likely the result of our working quickly in following complex, rapidly evolving events, we should have used "sexually assaulting."

Sandusky is charged with "multiple counts of involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, corruption of minors, endangering the welfare of a child, indecent assault and unlawful contact with a minor, as well as single counts of aggravated indecent assault and attempted indecent assault," according to the Associated Press.

Because the charges do not specify rape, we do not use that word, even though it does appear in the grand jury report.

This is not a new challenge for editors. We issued memos to the staff in 2003 and 2008 and again this month to remind editors that "sex case" is not acceptable headline shorthand for describing instances of alleged sexual assault. Victims of such assault do not "have sex" with their attackers; that usage implies consent.

As is often the case, a major news event reminds us about our own guidelines and the need to watch for subtleties in language.

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