'Frontline' avoids sensationalism in report on child abuse charges


"Innocence Lost" is a kind of TV journalism we don't see much of these days.

Rather than taking a sensational case and emphasizing its most shocking aspects, tonight's "Frontline" report, which airs at 9 on MPT (Channels 22 and 67), aims for understanding.

The case examined here is one that's unfolding in Edenton, N.C., where the former owners of a day care center (Bob and Betsy Kelly), three of their employees and two other town residents are charged with 429 counts of sexual abuse of children. All the children were pupils at the Kellys' Little Rascals day care center in Edenton.

The emotions connected with such charges are powerful ones, which TV is good at exploiting. Think of the McMartin case in California: How many reports on that child-abuse trial used the formula of showing a toddler's innocent face while a voice recited the horrible offenses alleged to have happened to such a child?

"Innocence Lost" avoids that for the most part. Instead it tries to convey a sense of how these charges -- based on allegations made by children -- have split the community and shattered lives. It traces the origin of the charges and leaves you wondering if it wasn't the result of a feud between one of the mothers and Mrs. Kelly. The show raises a lot of questions like that, questions the press generally failed to raise in the McMartin case.

The report has its flaws. It's too long by about 30 minutes, not very eloquent visually and not perfectly balanced. But, overall, "Innocence Lost" is solid TV journalism.

The report is followed at 11 p.m. by a half-hour discussion with legal and medical experts on issues involving sexual abuse of children. The discussion is moderated by Cynthia McFadden, senior producer and anchor of cable's Courtroom Television Network.

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