The News about Child Sexual Abuse: A Systematic Analysis of Reports in the South African English-Language Press

Article excerpt

The extent and representativeness of child sexual abuse reporting in the South African English-language press were examined. Baseline data for the study comprised a complete record of all cases of child sexual abuse reported to the police in the North Durban Policing area (KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa) from January 2001 to December 2004, with newspaper reports of child sexual abuse being obtained from the 2004 online archives of a South African English-language newspaper. Study findings indicate that press coverage of child sexual abuse is negligible (i.e., an index of crime-news coverage of less than 1%), with the nature of cases covered by the press being largely representative of the types of cases reported to the police.

Keywords: child sexual abuse, newspaper coverage, press reporting, South Africa.

It is generally acknowledged that media reporting of child sexual abuse (CSA) has a potential for both benefit and harm. On the positive side, media coverage has been found to: (a) be associated with an increase in child maltreatment reporting (Besharov, 1990; McDevitt, 1996; Pelton, 1981; Pfohl, 1977; Zellman & Antler, 1990); (b) play a significant role in raising public awareness of the problem (Goddard, 1996; McDevitt, 1996); (c) be influential in the restructuring, and in the allocation, of increased resources to child protection services (Goddard & Carew, 1993); and (d) play a crucial role in policy development (Goddard & Liddell, 1993, 1995).

On the negative side, a number of authors have suggested that press coverage of CSA tends to be excessive (Press et al., 1985; Wilczynski & Sinclair, 1999), sensationalistic (Besharov, 1990; Jenkins, 1996), and distorted in ways which may in themselves "constitute an abusive activity" (Franklin & Horwath, 1996, p. 310). Of particular concern is the fact that the images of child abuse conveyed by press reports have been found to correspond to popular myths and stereotypes about the problem. Restrictive stereotyping - which effectively denies the reality of most abuse incidents (cf., Collings, 1997) - has been evident in media reporting which has focused on: (a) more extreme or bizarre forms of abuse (Costin, Karger, & Stoesz, 1996; Goddard, 1996; McDevitt, 1998; Nelson, 1984); (b) incidents of abuse where the perpetrator is a stranger or someone who is not well known to the child (Atmore, 1996; Hesketh & Lynch, 1996; Kitzinger, 1996; Wilczynski & Sinclair, 1999); and (c) instances of abuse which take place in public or unfamiliar surroundings (Atmore, 1996; Goddard, 1996). In addition, media reports which have presented children as less than innocent parties to their own abuse (Franklin & Horwath, 1996; Goddard, 1996) or which have portrayed individuals other than the abuser as being responsible for the problem of abuse (cf., Atmore, 1996; Hesketh & Lynch, 1996) are consistent with myths which function to mitigate offender blame; while media reports which provide justifications for the offender's behavior or which portray children as consensual partners to their own abuse (cf., Goddard, 1996) are clearly consistent with myths which function to deny the abusiveness of child maltreatment.

METHODOLOGICAL CONSIDERATIONS

Despite a substantial literature on the topic there have been surprisingly few attempts to systematically explore the extent and representativeness of CSA reporting with reference to meaningful baseline data. Further, those studies which have involved baseline comparisons (e.g., Cheit, 2003; Wilczynski & Sinclair, 1999) have tended to rely on comparative data which do not permit meaningful inferences.

For example, Wilczynski and Sinclair's (1999) comparison of a year's worth of CSA reports in the Sydney (Australia) press with cases of child maltreatment reported to the New South Wales Department of Community Services (DOCS) during the same period is problematic in a number of respects. …