Does media magnify realm of abuse?


The subject of child sexual abuse seems to lead inevitably to the subject of media coverage. Do newspapers, magazines and television devote enough time to educating the public about the crime? Do they exaggerate and sensationalize reports of abuse -- both alleged and proven?

"A lot of the apprehension about child sexual abuse comes from the media's excessive rather than reasoned approach," says Sandra Skolnik, executive director of the Maryland Committee for Children. "As there are more and more media outlets, and they are all looking for product, the situation gets worse.

"It's parents' responsibility to educate their children about sexual abuse so they can know if something happens to them and know to tell their parents about it," says Ms. Skolnik. "But if everyone deals with the subject in this agitated way -- the way the media is hyping it -- it becomes almost an irrational fear."

On the other hand, the media deserves much of the credit for calling public attention to a long-neglected subject, says psychologist Larry Kutner who teaches at Harvard Medical School.

Mark Crispin Miller, media critic and professor at Johns Hopkins University, sees the subject of child sexual abuse as tailor-made for media treatment.

"The media is always to blame -- but how? By making us too conscious of the possibility of sexual abuse? It's more that the media makes a kind of self-indulgence seem almost obligatory -- the world of TV is a world whose streets are crowded with irresistible bodies which are all out there, and they're all for you -- while, at the same time, overstigmatizing even the most innocent kinds of contact.

"There are people who have so liberalized the definition of abuse that almost any kind of contact must seem abusive. And there is unfortunately a natural fit between such theories and activities and the media which, as an industry, must play things up and sensationalize behavior as much as possible. . . .

"If you really succeeded in criminalizing suggestive or provocative behavior," says Mr. Miller, "ultimately everybody would be behind bars."

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