New York Times
THE PUBLIC EDITOR
Confusing Sex and Rape
By ARTHUR S. BRISBANE
Published: November 19, 2011
AS the Jerry Sandusky case at Penn State University shows, reporting on allegations of sex crimes poses a challenge not only to get the story right but to deliver it in language that puts the facts in the proper light.
Some readers, responding to The New York Times’s first reports on the case, strongly objected to wording in the articles that, in their view, either underplayed the details or wrongly applied the language of consensual sex to the narrative.
The objections focused on the most severe of the accusations against Mr. Sandusky, a former Penn State assistant coach. According to the grand jury report, he subjected a boy estimated to be 10 years old to “anal intercourse” in locker room showers at the university in 2002.
Jennifer Crichton, a reader from Manhattan, said The Times’s initial article on Nov. 5 missed the mark when it described the testimony of a Penn State graduate assistant about the incident. As The Times put it, he told the grand jury that he saw Mr. Sandusky “sexually assaulting a boy in the shower.”
“Why is this described as ‘sexual assault’ and not as ‘rape’ ”? Ms. Crichton wrote.
“My question for The Times,” wrote Frederick Lazare of Houston, “is why did it not immediately tell its readers that the student assistant saw Jerry Sandusky raping a child. That was in the grand jury report.”
Lilith Fowler, a reader from Milwaukee, objected to a Nov. 9 Times account in which the graduate assistant was said to have testified to the grand jury that “he saw Mr. Sandusky having anal sex with the boy.”
“The boy, age 10 or 11, has no ability to consent,” Ms. Fowler wrote, “so this is not anal sex, it is a rape, and The Times should call it that.”
Patricia Raube of Binghamton, N.Y., elaborated on the same point about the same passage: “An adult can rape a child. An adult can molest a child. An adult cannot ‘have sex’ — a phrase connoting consent — with a child.” In her view, the language soft-pedals the “enormity of the abuse perpetrated.”
It should be noted that four days into The Times’s news coverage, the newspaper introduced the term “rape” into some of its de>