Sex Offender Myths in Print Media: Separating Fact from Fiction in U.S. Newspapers

Article excerpt

Abstract: The media sometimes present certain myths related to sex offenders that run contrary to the data supported by empirical research, such as identifying sex offenders as being compulsive, homogenous, specialists, and incapable of benefiting from treatment. These myths affect the public's overall perception of sex offenders and their crimes, which, in turn, can influence public policy. The literature suggests that television news presents several myths about sex crimes and sex offenders; however, research on whether the print media perpetuate these myths is limited. This exploratory study seeks to begin filling this gap in the literature by examining the presentation of sex offender myths in newspaper articles. Employing content analysis, this study evaluated a sample of 334 articles published in 2009 in newspapers across the United States for the presence of sex offender myths. Sex offender myths were not significantly related to the type of article, region of publication, victim age or gender, or the type of offense. Myths were, however, significantly associated with articles reporting on various types of sex offender policies, often in a manner which runs contrary to empirical research. The legal and policy implications of these findings are explored.

Keywords: criminal justice policy, crime and media, sex crimes, sex offenders

INTRODUCTION

Sexually-based crimes against children spark a sense of alarm and urgency among the public. This public response is exacerbated when the media sensationalizes cases involving the abduction and sexual victimization of children, especially those that tragically end in a child's murder (Katz-Schiavone et al. 2008). But such child abductions by strangers are rare. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (n.d.) estimates that roughly 115 children per year are the victims of kidnappings by strangers who hold the child overnight, transport the child 50 miles or more, kill the child, demand ransom, or intend to keep the child permanently (see also Sedlak et al. 2002). In contrast, young children are killed by drunk drivers and as a result of "physical abuse or neglect perpetrated by their own parents or caretakers" at exponentially higher rates (Levenson and D'Amora, 2007: 179).

Media coverage of child sexual victimization fuels the public's morbid fascination with sex offenders who target children (Hanson et al. 2002; Levenson and D'Amora 2007; Lösel and Schmucker 2005; Miethe, Olson, and Mitchell 2006; Nieto and Jung 2006). Such media reports have led to a national moral panic surrounding the safety of children (Fox 2002; Jenkins 1998; Zgoba 2004) that has, in turn, perpetuated the acceptance of myths that run contrary to empirical knowledge about sex crimes and sex offenders (Center for Sex Offender Management 2000; Dowler 2006; Levenson et al. 2007; Zgoba 2004).

REVIEW OF THE LITERATURE

The Social Construction of Sex Crimes and Offenders in the Media

The media play an important role in the way the public perceives the criminal justice system since the majority of public knowledge about crime and justice is derived from the media (Dowler 2003; Surette 2011; Weitzer and Kubrin 2004). But media are often ineffective in educating the public about crime. Indeed, coverage of violent and sensational crimes disproportionate to their levels in official data exaggerates public fears of victimization (Dowler 2006; Proctor, Badzinski, and Johnson 2002; Quinn, Forsyth, and Mullen-Quinn 2004; Surette 2011; Weitzer and Kubrin 2004), especially for sex crimes (see Soothill and Walby 1991).

The sensational method by which the media highlights crime, especially those of a sexual nature, has resulted in the creation of moral panics among the public (Maguire and Singer 2011; Soothill 2010; Zgoba 2004). Moral panic-a term first coined by Young in 1971 and largely attributed to Cohen (1972)-describes "a condition, episode, person, or group of persons which emerge to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests" (Cohen 1972:9). …

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