Unethical sensationalism in child sexual abuse cases

Almost every day child sexual abuse cases are being reported by the media and that too with increasingly graphic details of what happened to the child, to the extent of revealing too much information. In cases where a family member is involved, it becomes easier to guess the victim when the media exposes the perpetrator.

As the fourth pillar of democracy with principles, it is the duty of the media to highlight such crucial issues but why sensationalise them? Where are the media’s sensitivities?

Let us look at some of the headlines from reports that were published by the media in recent times.

– Mother who saw son sexually assault daughter, then 12, but did not report it, pleads guilty, The Sun 16 Jan 2024

– 12-year-old girl gang raped by three youths she befriended via social media, Star 16 Aug 2023

– Six men, including 5 siblings, charged with gang rape on 11-year-old girl, New Straits Times, 4 Dec 2023

– Unemployed man gets 15 years’ jail, caning for raping friend’s underaged daughter in Selangor, New Straits Times, 28 Dec 2023

– Teen girls lured by ‘new flavoured vape’ gang-raped in Malaysia, South China Morning Post, 2 May 2023

The above titles focus on the abuse, resulting in victim shaming. These headlines were written devoid of emotions or compassion for the victims, disregarding the trauma the victim endured.

Role of the editorial rooms

Editorial room guidelines must stringently enforce the rule that identity of children cannot be disclosed. Malaysia’s laws too say the same. And that is why photos of minors are blurred when published.

Reporters must uphold confidentiality of the victim and not put the child and family under further emotional and mental distress. Media must protect the rights of children as guaranteed under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The media appears to be viewing the issue from the perspective of a powerful adult against a powerless child. Children are depicted as emotional appeal objects, victims and performers instead of allowing their voices to be heard.

 As a mother and former editor-in-chief, I know children will choose to shut down when they sense it’s not safe to speak.

The facts and information revealed in the media may lure the wrong people to find the victims for all the wrong reasons.

Some media houses in the past have given the space for children, in anonymity, and the following is an example from a child who is a sexual abuse survivor.

“There is a man who often comes home with my mother, and a friend and frequently stays where we live. He always tries to harass me. He first bribed me with sweets and toys and then tried to touch my private body parts. He threatened to hurt my mother if I told anyone. Due to this only I am living a fearful life and afraid of getting out of my home or to speak to anyone.” She knows about the child helpline number but when she tries to talk to them and share her problem with the child helpline, her parent refuses to support her.”

Journalists’ to do list

Journalists need to document instances of sexual abuse and grooming without going into intimate, horrific details.

While reporting sexual abuse, the media needs to keep in mind the best interest of the child, namely: –

  • · Reveal the perpetrator his/her demography, background, brutality of his/her act rather than the demographics of the victim. Do not name the demography of the perpetrator if the victim stays in close proximity.
  • · Bring blame and shame towards the perpetrator rather than highlight the stigmatisation of the child who was abused.
  • · When reporting on sexual violence against children also report on the steps taken by the authorities to address and prevent such incidents; as well as the responsibility of adult citizens in intervening and preventing abuse.
  • · Simultaneously run programs that highlight the fact that ensuring the safety and dignity of children is the responsibility of adults, as well as help adults learn how to teach Personal Safety to small children without instilling fear or distrust of adults.
  • · Follow up the case/s intermittently until the trial is completed.

Earning children’s trust

 “But adults will always take the side of other adults,” my 5-year-old daughter protested when we were having a discussion on the topic.

“No,” I insisted, “if you tell someone, they will help you”.

She had a point. How many people do we know who rather look away when something wrong was happening around them?

 Imagine you are an adult. A kid seems uncomfortable. She drops hints that a colleague of yours is ‘bad’. What is your likely reaction? Act on the vague words of a five-year-old and risk a colleague’s career, your organisation’s reputation, and a host of other messy stuff? Or look the other way and pretend that there is nothing wrong?

After all, there is a good chance that even if something is amiss, it will never come to light.

I don’t think kids necessarily need to be taught what abuse is. Anything that feels wrong is abuse.

We must be responsive and eliminate bureaucratic red tape, while also overcoming any hesitancy to take action.

Our approach must enable our children to voice their objections loud and clear. Rob the adults of any excuse to look the other way. That will hopefully keep the predators at bay.

Ensuring a child that help is readily available is one thing, protecting the child after opening up will be the next crucial step.

Most children are left with more guilt and self-blaming after the crime is publicised.

We need to set up a secure support system for the children, especially if they come from a downtrodden society. For a start let’s call on media outlets to be more responsible in reporting child abuse cases. 

The above is not confined to licensed media outlets since these days anyone with digital devices can become influencers and citizen journalists.

This makes it difficult to implement ethics in reporting child abuse cases. We must have fresh regulations to protect classified information of minors involved in such cases.

HEMA SUBRAMANIAM is a former editor -in-chief and a mother of a five-year-old child.