Working with the Media for Prevention

Preventing the sexual abuse of children in our society must consider influence of the media, particularly news coverage, and how we can focus attention on prevention. Here we summarize some recent research that points to how news coverage of child sexual abuse needs to shift to improve the climate for prevention. 

News coverage matters

Everyone, including policy makers and opinion leaders, relies on news coverage to understand an issue or event. It is particularly influential around taboo issues that that we don’t talk about much in daily life, like child sexual abuse.

As the Berkeley Media Studies Group writes, "News coverage of child sexual abuse is doubly important because the abuse is often hidden from view. For many people -- including many policy makers -- news coverage will be the only way they learn about the issue."

Research and recommendations

Recent research by Berkeley Media Studies Group and Frameworks Institute shows that media coverage of child sexual abuse and sexual violence both focus overwhelmingly on individual stories from a criminal justice perspective. The authors are clear that prevention advocates and activists must try to influence media coverage of child sexual abuse in order to improve the overall climate for preventing sexual violence. The recommendations from this research was presented in a June 2012 webcast sponsored by the Ms. Foundation for Women, and summarized in a Foundation press release, 5 Tips for Media Covering Child Sexual Abuse.

The overall strategy for prevention activists and advocates is to urge media to go beyond reporting the details of individual cases – and even beyond individual behavior change and increased awareness. We must do more than demand coverage of how specific instances of abuse can be prevented. We also need to:

  • Talk about prevention in terms of building our collective responsibility for public safety for all children.
  • Highlight the broader changes in our society that will reduce sexual violence, like promoting positive, early childhood and sexual development.

Two important strategies for influencing the public dialogue through media is to invest in developing relationships with journalists, which also provides a chance to educate them on the topic. Advocates also can contribute to the opinion pages by writing letters to the editor, submitting commentary, and writing opinion pieces that focus on broader solutions.

Take action with a letter to the editor

When high profile stories involving child sexual abuse (like the Penn State/Sandusky cases) occupy the headlines, it's the perfect time to amplify your views by working through news outlets to influence the conversation in your community.

Take our sample letters to the editor and use them to write to your local newspaper’s opinion pages. These are a great way to share information and help shape discussion of child sexual abuse prevention in your community, especially when there is a relevant high profile news story. We also know that elected officials pay a lot of attention to opinion pages so you’ll be getting their attention as well. And, you’ll probably find that once you speak out, there are many more people who share your views.

Tips for getting published

Here are some tips for improving your chances of getting your letter or commentary published.

1. Be timely. Respond with your commentary or letter as soon as the story breaks.

2. Make personal contact. For commentaries and op-eds, it really helps to make personal contact with an editor. Send your piece in to the newspaper or website, then contact the opinion editor about why it is important to get your message to their readers now.

3. Don’t self-promote. Do not "advertise" your agency in the commentary. Write from a broader point of view.

4. Follow guidelines. Research and follow their specific editorial guidelines. Don't submit a piece that does not follow their word count or other guidelines.

5. Try for a meeting. Finally, if you’re really motivated and ambitious, try to get a meeting with the editorial board. In person you can both educate and discuss story angles that interest them. This may result in a series or in-depth feature story. The resources below include some that may be helpful for educating journalists.


Media coverage of child sexual abuse

Reporting on child sexual abuse

Reporting on Penn State-Sandusky