The Near Uselessness of How Cable News Covers Sex Crimes

Dropping the Ball

How often do we hear about a high profile case of child sex abuse on cable news? Too often is the correct answer. Next question: how often do we hear about cable news educating the public on how to protect themselves and loved ones against sex abuse? Not often enough is the correct answer.

Today, the news networks are covering the Duggar family sex abuse scandal - of the TV show 19 Kids and Counting, as well as former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert and the allegations that he abused Steve Reinboldt when the two were associated in the 1970s at Yorkville High School. Admittedly these are high profile examples of sex abuse, but the media's coverage is not limited to these two high profile cases. The media covers lesser known offenders who had no public identity before the coverage of their crimes.

The problem I have with the manner in which sex crimes are covered by the media is that all relevant reporting occurs after a crime has happened. People tune in. They want to hear about the details. They want to hear about how the case is unfolding and how the offender is going to be prosecuted. Sex sells. Sex crimes become a form of entertainment. Covering the high profile crimes are good for ratings. Ratings are good for revenues.

I believe the media can and should do more to talk about prevention before a crime occurs, rather than just covering crimes after they occur. The media can better educate the public. As of right now, too many of our strategies that are used to combat sex abuse focus on abuse after the fact rather than preventative. Too many of our strategies are a false sense of security. The media contributes to this.

Think about it like this. We know it is newsworthy to report on a crime. But is it not even more newsworthy to tell parents about what recent research says about what works and what doesn't to keep children safe? Clearly, yes. However, discussion of prevention is just not as entertaining and it is not as good for ratings. Prevention coverage doesn't have the same level of sensationalization as the coverage of crime.

That is the perverse aspect - the news networks that claim to be trying to inform the public have virtually no coverage on what works and what doesn't keep people safe before a crime has occurred.

The science of human behavior is complex. Criminal behavior is more complex, and sex crime behavior yet even more complex. How then are parents supposed to know how to keep children safe against one of the most elusive and sneaky of criminals?

What Should Be Done to Keep People Safe?

It depends. Are we talking about children, women, vulnerable populations or someone else? Are we talking about before or after a crime has been committed?

First it is important to know that not all sex offenders are the same. Think of offenders are different types of cancer: no one treatment is good for all cancers. Offenders who target children are estimated to be as much as 90% of the time someone who has a good relationship with the child and the child's family - it is not a stranger who is likely going to victimize a child. According to the US DOJ, about 85 to 90 percent of sexual assaults reported by college women are perpetrated by someone known to the victim; about half occur on a date. Seniors or people in the care of another, such as someone with a disability, are also more likely to be victimized by someone caring for them than a stranger.

  • Children: Parents need to educate their children on what is appropriate touching and inappropriate touching, when boundaries are crossed, when to report that boundaries have been crossed, and to let children know that they won't get in trouble for reporting violations. Parents need to realize that the person most likely to sexually abuse their child is someone they know and trust, and someone who has regular contact with their child. It is not only important for parents to educate their children, but schools need to educate their students because sometimes the abuse is happening at home. And parents and educators need to be properly trained how to identify when a child is being victimized.
  • Women: The US DOJ identifies that there are several factors that increase sexual assault risk. And then there are certain self-defense actions can decrease risk. For example, self-defense courses about keeping women safe, i.e. not going out alone at night, carrying and being trained in the use of pepper spray and tasers, not drinking a drink at a nightclub that has not been under constant surveillance and therefore has not been tampered with, and much more. Virtually every college in America offers trainings that includes these elements to help keep women safe from offenders while in college and beyond.
  • Vulnerable populations: The ARC is a good resource to learn about abuse in vulnerable populations. Populations such as the elders, patients and the disabled, to name a few, need to also be educated on boundaries being crossed and the need for victims to report, for cameras to record residential areas, and for staff to be properly trained how to identify when someone is being victimized.
  • Prison and Jail: Prison programs must be evidence-based and the programs' effect on recidivism must be measured against a control group everywhere it is offered. Programs and program evaluations must be funded. One without the other is like driving blind.
  • Post-Incarceration: Post release supervision is critically important not just to keep tabs on the ex-offender prospect of returning to sex crimes, but because the possibility of new non-sex crimes are an even larger possibility. Any ex-offender has enormous hurdles to overcome to successful re-entry.
  • The Cable News Channels: Cable TV and cable news in particular contribute to the perceptions that people have about the world around them. Viewers go to the cable news channels to be informed. If the news programs bring experts on to discuss what works and what doesn't this then contributes to a better sense of what the public can and should expect from their elected leaders. If the viewers is educated about how sex offender registries don't reduce recidivism or that sex offender residential restrictions don't do anything to protect children from being victimized because of the manner in which predators target their prey, the public will start to demand and expect more evidence-based approaches to reducing sex abuse.
  • Post-Incarceration: Post release supervision is critically important not just to keep tabs on the ex-offender prospect of returning to sex crimes, but because the possibility of new non-sex crimes are an even larger possibility. Any ex-offender has enormous hurdles to overcome to successful re-entry.
  • Politicians and Public Safety Employees: As leaders in the public spotlight, it is imperative that the use of fear not drive policy. Fear is useful in bringing an issue to the spotlight, but fear should stop there and a reasoned evidence-based approach should take over. Not only 'evidence-based', but an insistence on 'evidence-producing' (the need to measure any and all efforts to reduce sex offender crimes). Politicians need to be public leaders and speak truth against the fear about what works and what does not in keeping people safe.

In these bullet points, I am making reference to keeping people safe from sex offenders, not telling the sex offender what to do or not to do. Just telling someone not to be a sex offender is about as effective as just telling someone not to do drugs, or steal or murder. That is a whole other topic and therefore whole other article on keeping someone from being a criminal. Here I am discussing how to keep ourselves 'from' the criminals, not how to not be a criminal.

Paul Heroux is a state representative from Massachusetts on the Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security. Paul worked in jail and prison before becoming a State Rep. Paul has a master's in criminology from the University of Pennsylvania, and a master's in public administration from Harvard, and a bachelor's in psychology and neuroscience from USC. Paul can be reached at or 508-639-9511.