Bad Journalism 101: Perverted Motels Edition

Content Note: Child Sex Abuse

So, we here in my head are, as you might expect from the title of this blog, quite interested in both perverts and perversion. We believe that our blog name can and should be interpreted in 2 ways:

  1. Perverts deserve justice in the same way non-perverts deserve justice, and
  2. The course of justice must sometimes be perverted, that is redirected from what in the past had been considered the just outcome. After all, every major advance in justice has been denounced as a perversion of justice by someone.

But despite our interest in these topics, we never expected to have to defend motels from non-consensual obscene photography. Yet, apparently there is such a need. The following is an actual quote from Rawstory:

According to News9, the documents reveal [former Oklahoma state senator Ralph] Shortey placed Craiglist sex ads, took obscene motel photos and used fake names to traffick underage boys.

The actual obscenity was presumably the non-consensual photography of children trafficked, raped and abused by Shortey. While it is unclear from any available source whether the photos took place before, during or after the rape and sexual assault, whether the photos depicted the assaults themselves is in no way a saving grace. Whatever the content of the photos, Shortey wanted them as trophies of his successful rape and abuse of children. That’s just horrifying, however you report on it.

Nevertheless, I am interested in how the media is reporting on this. Not because I think I would change my assessment of Shortey or the photos, but rather because of what that tells us about the relationship of journalists and journalism to the issues of rape, sexual assault, and other forms of abuse that are typically conducted outside the view of the public eye. After all, Rawstory didn’t get the idea to portray things that way from their imaginations. Here’s that News9 story Rawstory was crediting:

Craigslist sex ads, dirty motel photos and fake names are all documented in the case against the suspect.

Later in the story, News9 references

images [that] show stains on an unkept bed.

It could easily be this that merited the description “dirty motel photos” earlier in the story, but as Rawstory changes “dirty” to “obscene” we are made to wonder if some of the photos might contain something entirely different. And we wonder this not because there could ever be a photo taken by a rapist as a trophy from a rape isn’t morally obscene, but rather from the lack of clarity between moral obscenity and sexual obscenity.

Tracing the source, we can imagine Rawstory not wanting to repeat the horrors of The Oregonian’s headline, “Goldschmidt confesses ’70s affair with girl, 14” (which I’ve discussed before, unfortunately only in a comment, but I’ll put off discussing more prominently yet again, since it isn’t current). But it’s very much possible that News9 was using “dirty” in reference to actual, physical discolorations on inanimate objects owning to the presence of foreign matter.

It’s almost amusing until one remembers that there’s a difficult balance being struck here: there really is a problem with making too many details public and risking publicizing the name of Shortey’s victims. There also is a problem in that without more information, we’re left not at all certain about what Shortey actually did, when as a larger society accurate information about who commits what types of crimes is essential to deterring or otherwise preventing them.

I don’t think that we need to know more details specifically about Shortey’s crimes because we have enough information about the problem of child sexual abuse generally to enact much better policies than we currently have. But that hasn’t always been true, and as our policies improve we risk it becoming true again if we bump up against the limits of then publicly-available knowledge.

So why, then, is News9 choosing to publish this one, limited detail? Frankly the image is stomach turning not because I’ve never known a bed to be dirty, but because I have known child sex abuse. What does it add? On the one hand, we should feel our stomachs churn to learn that a child has been abused. On the other, the manner of this reporting appears to be creating confusion, not education. We don’t need that. I think there are many reasonable answers to balancing the need of the community to be informed about how everyday the sexual abuse of children really is. But if you’re sowing confusion, you won’t like your harvest.

Media coverage: you’ve got a long way to come, baby.

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