Insight about recanting, victim privacy in sexual abuse cases

Contact Tracy Cox, Communications Director

National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC)
(877) 739-3895, tcox@nsvrc.org

 
MEDIA ADVISORY

In the race to break a news story first, sometimes media outlets reveal inaccurate or sensitive information. This happened this week, when several well-known news organizations revealed the identity of the young man at the center of the sexual abuse allegations against Sesame Street’s Elmo puppeteer Kevin Clash.

Even though the young man is an adult now, he was a teenager when either the abuse or relationship occurred with Clash, who was in his mid-40s. The legal age of consent varies by state so it may not have been illegal behavior according to the statute, but clearly there was an age, maturity, and power differential between these two people that certainly makes for a potentially abusive dynamic.

Typically, in media reports of sexual abuse a victim’s identity is protected. The Associated Press Stylebook has guidelines around privacy stating, “Do not identify, in text or through images, persons who say they have been sexually assaulted, and use discretion in naming victims of other extremely severe abuse. … AP may also consider identifying the victim of a sexual assault if the individual comes forward publicly and agrees to be identified.”

Did the young man in this case agree to be identified? Several news sources not only identified him by name, but some revealed details about his address and family. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC) does not believe that revealing a potential victim’s name, address and other identifying information adds anything substantial to the story; and yet it clearly can place that person in a vulnerable or even dangerous situation.      

Yes, the young man recanted, however, it doesn’t mean nothing happened. Recanting occurs for a variety of reasons. In some high-profile cases, a victim may worry about how the media scrutiny will impact their lives/families, or some fear that they will not be believed. Others may face retaliation or fear for their safety.

In many high-profile cases, victims are accused of making false allegations. Studies show the prevalence of false reporting is low ‑- between 2% and 10% -- yet, when survivors of sexual abuse come forward, many face intense scrutiny and barriers. Sadly, oftentimes, their own character is called into question. All of these things can negatively impact survivors and prevent them from coming forward. Furthermore, the way the media reports on these events, also impacts whether other victims will come forward in future cases. 

Sexual violence is a complex issue. As members of the media, journalists play a critical role in illuminating the truth for people. Over the past year, there has been an increase in media coverage of child sexual abuse, mostly due to the Jerry Sandusky case. Journalists across the country accurately reported on that case while exercising sensitivity toward victims’ identities. We want journalists to keep reporting on this topic, but we ask that it be done in an accurate, responsible manner. NSVRC has developed a packet for journalists about reporting on sexual violence; it can be viewed online at http://nsvrc.org/publications/nsvrc-publications-information-packets/media-packet.

Founded by the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape in 2000, NSVRC identifies, develops and disseminates resources regarding all aspects of sexual violence prevention and intervention. For more information, visit www.nsvrc.orgwww.facebook.com/nsvrc and www.twitter.com/nsvrc

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