The Need for Accurate Language In Penn State Coverage
(By Wendy J. Murphy, TheCrimeReport.org, November 29, 2011)
The language in media reporting on the Penn State scandal has been almost universally inappropriate, both in print and television coverage. The media are pervasively using inappropriate language to describe the harm done to Jerry Sandusky's victims. As a former child abuse and sex crimes prosecutor, I've spent more than 20 years teaching, advocating and writing about sexual violence, victims' rights and the criminal justice system.
Along with my students, I run a program I developed ten years ago at New England Law/Boston entitled The Judicial Language Project. We use sociolinguistic research to critique the language used in law and society to describe violence against women and children. In connection with this project, I have trained judges and advocates around the country and have worked with the Poynter Institute to teach journalists about appropriate reporting styles when writing about sexual violence.
Erotic and vague terms, as well as phraseology that portrays the victim in a blameworthy role, inhibit our understanding of the crime as a unilateral act of violence committed by the perpetrator against a blameless victim.
By identifying problematic language and offering appropriate alternatives, the Judicial Language Project strives to improve the public's perception of sexual violence as a devastating harm that the U.S. Supreme Court has called the most severe injury to the self "short of homicide."
A simple Google search makes the point about the problems with the Penn State coverage. The phrase "Sandusky victim anal sex" produced 172,000 hits while "Sandusky victim anal rape" produced a mere 38,000 hits.
While the word "rape" rarely appears, nearly every news source describes the crimes at issue using the following terms and phrases: "engaging in sexual activity"; "fondling"; "the boy performing oral sex"; "anal sex/intercourse" and "sexual assault". These terms distort the truth about what allegedly happened to the children, and they interfere with our understanding of the victims' suffering.
A closer look at each word/phrase will better articulate the problem:
The word "engage" is defined as "to bring together" or "to induce to participate." The implication in such language is that the victim was an active participant who was causally involved in making the crime happen, rather than a recipient of the unilaterally harmful conduct of another. Words that imply any active responsibility on the part of a child obscure the offender's exclusive moral and legal culpability.
"Sexual activity", "sexual assault" and "molest" are vague terms that tell us nothing about the actual crime, making it impossible for the public to understand what happened, or to know how to feel about the harm done and whether the reactions of responsible adults, law enforcement officials, etc., have been appropriate.
"Fondle", as a verb, is defined as "to handle, stroke or caress lovingly." As a noun, the word refers to "affectionate play (or foreplay without contact with the genital organs)." The term conveys the idea that child sexual abuse is pleasant and gentle, which undermines our ability to see the behavior as harmful criminal activity.
Saying "the child performed oral sex" portrays the victim as the aggressor and paints a scene where the offending adult is barely present, and only a passive recipient of the child's affirmative actions. The child as primary actor thus absorbs moral and legal responsibility for the actions of a violent adult. Alone, the word "perform" offers a near circus-like description of the child's role in causing rather than receiving harm.
Clearly, a child enduring the violence of another does not "perform" a sex crime on himself. Indeed, he cannot even lawfully consent as a passive participant and the law is clear in every jurisdiction that the adult bears 100 percent of the blame. Words that shift responsibility away from the offender mitigate the offender's exclusive responsibility for his actions.
The phrases "oral sex", "anal sex" and "anal intercourse" are similarly problematic in that they literally define actions that involve mutual pleasure and enjoyable stimulation of sex organs. These erotic terms bring criminal behavior discursively into the range of everyday, often pleasurable, human activity.
This necessarily prevents the public from appreciating the fact the victim experienced fear, disgust, objectification and blurs an important line between sexual pleasure and criminal violence.
Words both reflect and generate cultural ideas about sexual violence. Consumers of words passively take in and unconsciously attribute language to their understanding of human behavior. This becomes an internal narrative that creates social norms and expectations.
When language used to tell stories about sexual violence is vague, needlessly erotic and/or implies that the victim bears some of the blame, the constructed story creates harmful ideas about offender responsibility and the reality of victims' suffering.
In criminal cases involving children in particular, it is critically important to use factually correct terminology that assigns complete responsibility to the offender because children lack legal capacity to consent.
Thus, for example, rather than "anal sex", a reporter could say, "the offender penetrated the child's anus with his penis". Instead of "the child performed oral sex," a reporter could say, "the offender pushed his penis into the child's mouth."
This accurate, if blunt, use of language makes it clear that the victim suffered harm and bears no responsibility for the criminal acts of the offender.
False tabloid reports still haunt Amanda Knox after acquittal
(KOMO Seattle News Services, October 27, 2011)
SEATTLE - Amanda Knox's hard-fought battle to prove her innocence after four years in prison may be over, but she and her family are still fighting a unending barrage of tabloid media stories that are outright fabrications.
The latest salvo came this week from the Italian magazine, OGGI, which claimed it had an interview with Knox's former Italian boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, who also was acquitted of the 2007 murder of Meredith Kercher.
The magazine even quoted Sollecito directly as saying, "We talk on the phone or write to each other every day. We have so many things to say to each other having passed four years in a circle of hell that crushed us."
Those quotes were picked up widely by British and American tabloid newspapers as an indication that their brief fling before Kercher's murder could be rekindled.
But it was all a lie, according to Raffaele's father. Francesco Sollecito spoke to ABC News from his home in Bari, Italy, where his son is now living.
"Raffaele has not spoken to any reporters since being released, and he will not anytime soon," Sollecito's father said.
Francesco Sollecito said that he spoke to OGGI magazine, but only about details of the case and not about Amanda Knox and his son speaking to each other daily.
"I did not talk about any communications between Amanda and my son. I have no idea if they speak every day," he said.
And the claims that his son is visiting Knox in Seattle before Christmas are not true either, Francesco Sollecito said.
"That is old information from when they were released and the Knox family extended the invite. We will go as a family to see the Knoxes at some point, but we have not set a date yet and are not planning to go before Christmas," the father said.
Earlier in the legal case while Knox was still in prison, OGGI reported an interview they claimed to have conducted with Knox. Her mother, Edda Mellas, says the reporter asked her about her daughter, but the magazine never spoke directly with Knox.
In response to the allegations of inaccurate reporting, OGGI told ABC News that their reporter did speak "directly and briefly" to Raffaele Sollecito "in a restaurant in Bisceglie, Italy." They also insist Mellas asked Amanda Knox questions on their behalf, which she relayed to them "word for word."
But a word-for-word account would have been difficult since Knox's family was not allowed to bring anything, including paper and pencil, into the prison visitation room.
Another false report that circulated recently in British tabloids was a story saying that the family of Meredith Kercher is planning to sue Knox for $12 million. But the Kercher family calls that claim nonsense.
For the families of Knox and Sollecito, contending with news reports is nothing new.
"Second to dealing with Amanda being falsely accused and imprisoned, has been dealing with the false reporting," Edda Mellas told ABC News. "I believe it was part of why she was convicted in the first place."
Knox's stepfather, Chris Mellas, added that the lies in the tabloid reports made him "really angry" at first. "But when it happens enough times, you are faced with either accepting it out of self-preservation or going nuts," he told ABC News.
"How many articles printed stories that said Amanda was the murderer? All false, and we had to tolerate it because at that point we had no simple recourse. The case was difficult to prove because Amanda had been incorrectly labeled as guilty. Fortunately we no longer have to tolerate it," he said.
Amanda Knox, Meredith Kercher and the media
(Nina Burleigh, The Guardian, 4 October 2011)
As an American journalist covering the Knox case for 10 months in Italy, I was surprised by a number of things. I arrived assuming Knox was guilty, but within a month realised that most of what I'd been reading about – how she and her boyfriend were holding a mop and bucket at the door when the cops arrived, how her boyfriend googled "bleach", how her footprints were in blood, how her blood was "mixed" with Meredith's in the bathroom they shared, and how the authorities had proof that a break-in had been "staged" – had no basis in fact. Not only was it not in the record, authorities couldn't confirm it either.
What I found most surprising, though, was the way the journalists I worked with seemed hardly bothered by the problems with the case. And while everyone was focused on Amanda Knox, the "star" of the horrid murder theory, no one was doing journalistic due diligence into the background and criminal history of Rudy Guede. He had been picked up in Milan the weekend before the murder having broken into a nursery school, and was found carrying items stolen from a Perugia law office that had been burgled the weekend before that. I interviewed the cops who arrested him, the nursery school owner who walked in on him in her office, his adoptive sister, his teachers, his father, his aunt and uncle and a party buddy who had spent night after night with him during the summer before the crime. The picture I was able to pull together, which I describe in my book, is one of a deeply troubled young man whose life story could have been written by Charles Dickens, crossed maybe with a little Stephen King.
Yet, the pack of reporters on this story chose never to do the moderate work it took to understand the nature of the man who has never denied being in the room while Meredith Kercher bled to death. But I learned that journalists in Italy work differently than we do in the US.
Perhaps the greatest single systemic inhibition on the Italian press – and on any journalist operating in Italy – has been the pervasiveness of the mafia in economic and political life. Any journalist working in Italy was aware of the fate of an intrepid young writer named Roberto Saviano, who wrote a scathing and revealing memoir of life among the Camorra clans in Naples. The gangsters issued a mafia version of a fatwa on Saviano. In 2009, he was hiding out in safe houses under constant police guard, in fear for his life. His girlfriend had dumped him, and he couldn't practice his craft, let alone go out dancing in Rome or eat at a restaurant. Though he was only in his early thirties, his existence as a free young man was effectively over.
Foreign journalists posted to Rome have even less incentive to get too nosy. The Roman beat is luxurious and amusing – too much fun to risk by violating the national journalistic norm. When Meredith Kercher was murdered, there was little incentive for middle-class, middle-aged professional journalists enjoying Italy's lifestyle charms to shine too much light into dark corners. Those who might have, like Saviano, knew they could find themselves hiding behind armed men, exiled back to their cold countries of origin, or getting plastic surgery and new names.
The result? Investigative journalism as practised in countries like the United Kingdom and United States simply does not exist in Italy. That function is left to the judiciary, although after decades of assassinations, failed trials and slow alterations to the constitution, it has become less, not more, transparent.
In the Kercher case, a powerful deterrent example was already in place. Giuliano Mignini, the Perugia prosecutor who led the investigation and original prosecution of the Kercher case, had recently plucked Mario Spezi, a Florentine newspaper crime reporter, out of his house and thrown him into solitary confinement for weeks after Spezi's investigation into the Monster of Florence case seemed to be deviating from the prosecutorial line. Mignini had also threatened an American novelist, Douglas Preston, in the same case, causing him to flee Italy, never to return. In the months after Meredith Kercher's murder, Perugia police also hauled in a local reporter, Il Giornale dell'Umbria's Francesca Bene, after she found witnesses with stories that cast doubt on the official theory in the Kercher case. Mignini also ordered a house search on a female Rome-based reporter for Mediaset, who had raised questions about the Kercher case early on. She never covered the case again.
The police narrative was challenged by the defence during the original trial. Lawyers for Knox made clear that there were problems with the DNA evidence, and that the witnesses – a homeless drug addict who claimed he saw Knox and her boyfriend hovering near the house around the time of the murder, and an elderly woman with mental health problems who said she heard screams – were untrustworthy. But only during the appeal did the judge bring in independent scientists to confirm that the material evidence was contaminated and useless. And only then was the untrustworthiness of those witness given serious consideration. The second, closer look at the police case proved it to be built of straw, and it fell apart. But if the Italian media had been doing a better job and, instead of being compliant and cowed, had questioned Mignini's narrative, Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito might never have been convicted in the first place.
Jurors on the Internet: a dilemma for courts
(By Maggie Clark, Stateline.org, December 19, 2011)
This month, the Arkansas Supreme Court overturned a guilty verdict in a capital murder case because a juror was tweeting about it while the case was being heard. A few days earlier, a California juror was dismissed after the court discovered she had posted extensively about the case and about the other jurors on her Facebook page.
This is a troubling time when it comes to the use of the Internet in the courtroom. Faced with rapidly changing technology, judges are struggling to keep jurors from getting and spreading information about current cases online. Doing online research on the defendant’s criminal record or consulting Facebook friends on a vote for sentencing might seem acceptable to some jurors, but it violates the oath “to base your verdict solely upon the evidence” as presented in the courtroom.
Personal Internet research can be just as dangerous a problem as social media use. In January of this year, a judge in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, was forced to acquit a man charged with homicide and first-degree murder in the death of a one-year-old, and declare a mistrial on a number of other counts, after the court found out a juror had independently done online research about injuries sustained by the victim, and possibly offered to share her knowledge with the other jurors.
All of this has happened in the wake of the 2009 “Google mistrial,” in which a Florida judge discovered that nine jurors in a federal drug case had been doing Internet research on the case, forcing the judge to declare a mistrial. Following that case, more than 30 states adopted new model jury instructions specifically barring jurors from researching or communicating about a case on the Internet while they are serving. But the problem remains widespread. In 2009 alone, judges granted new trials or overturned verdicts in 21 cases as a result of Internet-related juror activity, according to an analysis from Reuters Legal.
This month’s Arkansas Twitter episode was a complicated one. The State Supreme Court reversed the decision of a lower court judge, who allowed the murder conviction of Erickson Dimas-Martinez to stand even though a juror tweeted about the case several times after the lower court judge asked him to stop. (Another juror was observed sleeping through portions of testimony.) At 3:45 p.m. on April 1, 2010, the day of sentencing, Juror 2 tweeted, “It’s over.” But the jury did not announce that it had reached a sentence until 4:35 p.m., according to the Arkansas Supreme Court opinion.
“Because of the very nature of Twitter as an online social media site,” wrote Associate Justice Donald Corbin in the Arkansas opinion, “Juror 2’s tweets about the trial were very much public discussions…it is in no way appropriate for a juror to state musings, thoughts, or other information about a case in such a public fashion.” Arkansas had updated its jury instructions in 2010 to prohibit Internet communication and research about an ongoing case, and the Court determined that Juror 2’s actions showed that he was willfully disregarding those instructions.
Even though a majority of states now prohibit Internet research or communication by jurors, studies have found that many jurors misconstrue the instructions or simply refuse to limit their Internet use during a trial. In a pilot study of 500 jurors across the country conducted by the National Center for State Courts (NCSC), researchers found that even after jurors had been instructed that they could not tweet, email, use Facebook, or communicate electronically with friends or family members about a case, one-third of respondents either didn’t understand or incorrectly understood what they could and couldn’t do when it came to using the Internet while acting as a juror.
Paula Hannaford-Agor, director of NCSC’s Center for Jury Studies, says her research findings reflect how closely connected the Internet is with ordinary citizens’ daily lives. “People don’t intuitively understand why they shouldn’t do research on a case,” Hannaford-Agor says, “and why, if this is how they navigate throughout life, (the Internet) should be off limits.”
Some states have yet to instruct jurors about Internet research and communication. Some 20 states make no mention of the Internet as something to avoid while serving as a juror in a civil trial. At least 12 states do not mention the Internet or social media in their instructions for juries serving on criminal trials.
Internet research and communication in many cases is not malicious: Jurors may be driven by the desire to make sure they understand all the facts and definitions of complex legal terms. “Jurors are instructed in a number of ways as to their supremacy in judging the facts,” said Michael Hoenig, a products liability lawyer and author of several law journal articles on jurors and Internet use, in an email to Stateline. “Such instructions may, despite admonitions against Internet forays, act to ‘empower’ and embolden jurors into ‘searching for the truth’ even outside the courtroom.”
To curtail the problem, researchers recommend that judges not only tell jurors what they cannot do but explain why they cannot do it. Judge Herbert Wright, in Little Rock, Arkansas, tells his jurors that if they use social media or do Internet research during courtroom proceedings, they can cause an expensive mistrial and waste their own time and taxpayers’ money. Wright was made especially sensitive to the problem this year: In July, after one of his trials had ended, he found out that a juror had done Internet research on the defendant’s criminal record during a recess.
Explaining the rationale behind the restrictions, says Eric Robinson, of the Donald W. Reynolds National Center for Courts and Media, is the most effective way to reduce juror misconduct on the Internet. “Courts must appeal to jurors’ sense of duty, and explain the reasoning behind the restrictions, as well as the consequences for violating them,” says Robinson. Currently, only seven states include any rationale for prohibiting Internet research and communication in their civil jury instructions, and only 10 states include a rationale in their criminal jury instructions.
Courts could solve much of the problem by banning all juror cell phones from the courtroom, but they have been reluctant to do that, partly out of concern that more citizens would avoid jury duty if they felt they were losing communication with the outside world. Arguments have been made that public safety would be endangered if jurors couldn’t use their cell phones to get in touch with family members in the event of an emergency.
Whether or not these are valid concerns, they are likely to come up increasingly often as more people accustomed to online research and communication enter the jury pool. Hannaford-Agor, of the National Center for State Courts, says judges will have to decide whether they should simply overturn any case in which a single juror uses social media or does research despite court instructions, or whether they should be willing to accept some social media engagement during a case if the content doesn’t show bias.
“If everyone acts like the Arkansas Supreme Court,” Hannaford-Agor says, “we’re going to be turning over a lot of verdicts.”
ACLU pokes hole in N.J. attorney general's internal affairs complaint forms for police
(By Salvador Rizzo and James Queally/The Star-Ledger / December 21, 2011)
TRENTON — After rolling out tougher rules in May for police departments’ internal affairs units, State Attorney General Paula Dow has released new reporting forms that omit a crucial question: How many complaints about police officers are being investigated at the end of each year?
The new forms published Tuesday don’t require police departments to list the number of open investigations at year’s end, raising concerns among rights’ advocates that cases will continue to fall off the books, as they have for years.
“The intention with these forms is to provide a snapshot of accountability,” Peter Aseltine, a spokesman for Dow, said today. “That reporting was never intended as a means to track individual cases.”
But Deborah Jacobs, executive director of ACLU-NJ, who initially supported Dow’s proposals until she saw the finished product on Tuesday, called it “a huge step backward.”
She added, “It’s the more serious internal affairs complaints that take longer to investigate.”
Critics said it was the second time this month that Dow, who is leaving for a new job at the Port Authority in 10 days, limited access to public data. Earlier this month, she restricted information on overtime compensation for state law enforcement officers. Her office said today she was only codifying a set of legal precedents dating to 2002.
Jacobs said there was another problem as well. “We need an attorney general who will stick around for more than a year or two and dig in to fix the serious ongoing police practices issues that the ACLU has been raising for years,” she said.
State and local officials said that despite the omission on the new forms, police departments will have no problems policing their own. Critics said it leaves members of the public out of the loop if they want to track important data that has been consistently spotty for the last decade.
The Attorney General’s Office said that under Dow’s new system, county prosecutors have a more prominent role monitoring internal affairs complaints, analyzing all the numbers and squaring away any discrepancies. Previously, counties have not carried out those duties. The forms in question allow the public to review police departments’ data.
The Star-Ledger reported last year that from 2000 to 2008, one of every 10 internal affairs complaints at Newark’s police department was not reported to the Attorney General’s Office, despite state guidelines requiring them to do so. During that same period, statewide records show that out of 90,423 complaints filed, only 86,925 dispositions were made available to the public.
Newark police officials have said that despite those gaps they keep tabs on all investigations year over year, and that any errors were clerical.
Joe Santiago, a former State Police superintendent and former Newark police director who now heads the Irvington Police Department, said no matter what the forms ask, cases don’t just disappear on New Year’s Eve. Irvington and other police departments use automated systems that carry over all open complaints, he said.
Wayne Fisher, director of the Police Institute at Rutgers-Newark University and a former deputy director of the state Division of Criminal Justice, said the Attorney General’s Office was spinning its wheels.
“It doesn’t improve anything, but it really has not made the situation any worse, either,” said Fisher, who served on the task force Dow set up last year to draw up changes to New Jersey’s internal affairs policies.
But Jacobs and Fisher also praised other parts of Dow’s new policies. Police departments must now track complaints by officer to watch for patterns; they must devote more resources to training; and they must publicize summaries of the most serious complaints, though they don’t have to name officers.
“It is absolutely critical that law enforcement agencies investigate allegations against officers thoroughly and fairly, and that we provide the public with meaningful data about the complaints,” Dow said in May.
London man depicted as Tyreek Amir Jacobs speaks: "I'm actually alive"
(By Justin Fenton, The Baltimore Sun, December 24, 2011)
A 22-year-old London man who says his photo from a stock image catalog was used in a hoax about a killing for Air Jordans wants Americans to know: "I'm actually alive."
As shoppers around the country clashed over the sneakers, reports circulated social media and blogs that an 18-year-old Washington DC teenager named Tyreek Amir Jacobs had been killed in one of the melees. In fact, police reported no such killings, and the image of "Jacobs" was from a stock catalog.
In London, Sidney Boahen says he was getting home from his job as a pharmacist trainee and saw in his Facebook inbox that a friend had seen the report. "It's you!" they said.
Boahen said the photo was taken five years ago without his permission by a teacher. He remembers the photos being taken - but didn't know they would eventually be sold and made available as stock images. "This is a legal issue now, because I was only 17 at the time and he didn't have my parent's permission," he told me in a phone conversation.
So in reporting on a hoax, how does a reporter make sure they're not being punked again? I had messaged Sidney last night after he posted on our blog taking ownership of the photo. He called me today, and I asked him to accept my friend request. His timeline from yesterday afternoon shows friends commenting on how ridiculous it was that he was now known in the 'States as "Tyreek Jacobs."
"That's you in chemistry lol nuts man. You should stop it before it gets outta control," one person wrote.
"May I call you 'teek teek' from now on?" another asked, referring to the nickname the fictitious Jacobs was said to have been known as.
After he started posting that on Facebook and The Sun's site that the picture was of him, he said he got bombarded with friend requests on Facebook and had to block them. He's not looking for the attention.
Boahen wants the photos taken out of the stock image collections, where it's been used at least one other time on the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund blog. "It's a false representation," he said. "Maybe there's a person out there that [actually] died. No one should be killed over sneakers. But his picture should be up there, not mine."