Crime reporter: More descriptions needed in sex crime stories

by Karen SONG Keyi

HONG KONG _ Reporters should be specific when describe the actions of child sex crimes to inform readers of what happened, because the more people talk about sex abuse the less crime there will be, a crime reporter said Monday.


photo: from Sara Ganim’s personal website

News organizations usually replace words such as “rape” with some more general and vague ones in sex crime stories according to what is called the “breakfast rule”, said Sara Ganim, a young Pulitzer Prize winner. Instead of saying a 67-year-old man raped an 8-year-old girl, they would say a 67-year-old man accused of fondling an 8-year-old girl, which will possibly result in doubt and misunderstanding in readers’ head, she said.

The “breakfast rule” means editors or TV directors don’t want their audiences to be disgusted by gruesome descriptions when they have breakfast, Ganim said.

Therefore, disclaimers such as editor’s note or TV warnings are often used to prevent people from reading graphic descriptions that may lead to discomfort, said Ganim. “I think we should use a lot more. It gives you more opportunity to go further with your language with descriptions. We shouldn’t keep details out for the sake of sparing readers from anxiety or discomfort,” she said, “if there was penetration, say it.”

Ganim, 25, is one of the youngest journalists to win the Pulitzer Prize. She was the first to break the sex abuse scandal of Jerry Sandusky, a Penn State assistant football coach. She spoke with the journalism students at a Hong Kong university.

Another problem with sex crime reporting, according to Ganim, is the struggle of giving enough information but not identifying the victims. In the story of three teenage girls being raped by their father she only wrote that “the man has been accused of raping three teenagers,” but didn’t use their ages, so later they weren’t identified by their friends. However, reporters sometimes could be blamed for covering up and not telling the story if little information were provided for the sake of protection, she said.

“It’s not a easy decision and it differs every time,” she said, “my best advice is that more information is usually better than less information.”