Since the rise of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, much of the coverage of sexual misconduct has been highly sensationalized and involved allegations that haven’t followed due process or gone through the proper legal channels. In those cases, the sensationalism is more problematic because it riles society up, biasing it against the individuals accused often before an investigation has even begun. It corrodes our regard for the presumption of innocence, which is one of the founding principles of the U.S. justice system.
We saw this media phenomenon in the coverage of individuals such as Matt Lauer, Roy Moore and Sen. Al Franken (the average Knife integrity rating for those articles was 40 percent, meaning the other 60 percent of the information was distorted). Reporting of this nature can also contribute to serious consequences, such as the case of former Rep. Dan Johnson, who committed suicide after he was accused of sexual abuse. Now, sexual misconduct isn’t up for debate — it’s a crime. The problem is the lack of due process and the trying of the accused in the court of public opinion.
The coverage of Larry Nassar was different in this respect — the former U.S.A. Gymnastics team doctor was found guilty on Wednesday by a Michigan court. In this case, the data reported was the effect of due process: he was investigated, a trial was conducted and he was sentenced (these stories received an average integrity rating of 64 percent, by comparison).
While the Nassar coverage wasn’t as distorted as previous reports involving sexual abuse, media outlets still tainted the data by dramatizing it, giving a one-sided account and promoting societal blind spots that keep us from solving these types of problems. For instance, The Associated Press described the case as “grueling” and wrote that one gymnast “heaped scorn” on Nassar during her statements. Given the tragic nature of the circumstances, the facts speak for themselves. Is it necessary to add dramatic language to that?
More problematic were the comments the media included from the judge and some of the victims; their remarks may contribute to the very wrongs they sought to rectify. For instance, The New York Times said one of the victims reportedly called Nasser “a monster of a human being,” and cited the judge addressing him the following way:
Spending four or five days listening to [the victims’ impact statements] is significantly minor, considering the hours of pleasure you had at their expense and ruining their lives.This is what Kyle Stephens, the first victim who spoke last week, said to Nassar, according to CNN:
Sexual abuse is so much more than a disturbing physical act. It changes the trajectory of a victim’s life, and that is something that nobody has the right to do.And in her ruling, this is what Judge Rosemarie Aquilina said to Nassar:
And I want you to know, as much as it was my honor and privilege to hear the survivors, it is my honor and privilege to sentence you. Because, sir, you do not deserve to walk outside of a prison ever again … It is my privilege on counts one, two, five, eight, 10 and 18 and 24, to sentence you to 40 years. And when I look at my cheat sheet, 40 years just so you know and you can count it off your calendar is 480 months. The tail end, because I need to send a message to the parole board in the event somehow God is gracious and I know he is. If you survive the 60 years of federal court first and you start on my 40 years. You have gone off the page here as to what I am doing. My page only goes to 100 years. Sir, I am giving you 175 years which is 2100 months. I have just signed your death warrant.These statements may simply be a representation of how many of us think and feel about these things. There is no doubt that what Nassar did was deplorable and violated others’ rights, and that it has grave effects on the victims and all of society. While there is truth to these statements, they also assume he is solely to blame and that he has the power to ruin lives.
Portraying Nassar as a monster and making him the target of society’s scorn keeps us from looking at our own responsibility. The truth of the matter is we’ve allowed our communities to develop in ways that make these crimes possible. Parents, teachers, friends, law enforcement, government, industry, media — how do we all participate so as to allow these crimes to happen and go unnoticed for so long? How have men and women collectively treated and viewed each other to allow for these abuses?
The notion that someone can ruin your life is disempowering at best. Again, the effects of Nassar’s actions are real and tragic, but, if adopted, the belief that one’s life can be ruined could severely inhibit the healing process. A quote attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt might dispel such a falsehood, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”
Finally, there are the judge’s statements. Although just, it is sad that we must condemn a human being to life in prison, yet the judge emphasized what an “honor and a privilege” it was for her. USA Today reported that Judge William Collette, who has known Aquilina “for years,” criticized the sentencing as “the most violative” sentencing proceeding he could recall. He reportedly questioned why Aquilina would allow women who aren’t part of the criminal case to address Nassar in court. And the outlet wrote that Colette “also found it inappropriate” for her to tell Nassar, “I just signed your death warrant.”
The fear, rage and hate that stems from witnessing acts of abuse is human. It’s natural to feel this way when we see little girls and young women systematically abused. But to evolve any form of violence, our actions cannot follow from the same emotions from which violence stems. To root it out, and to heal, we must rise above fear, rage, hate and the perception of ourselves as victims.
To truly understand what drives a man like Nassar to abuse his authority and violate children and young women, we must see him and his actions as human. As destructive as they were, seeing him as a “monster” shrouds the issue in fear, and keeps us from seeing how those very same tendencies exist in all humans. Why do some act on them, while others do not? That is the problem we must solve.
Accountability is one step, the first step, but it’s not enough on its own to promote resolving these issues in our world. And if handled with blame, fear and hate, it only moves us further away from resolving the nature of why humans choose such hideous crimes.
How do we move forward? Maybe we all need to change.
Jens Erik Gould
Jens is a political, business and entertainment writer and editor who has reported from a dozen countries for media outlets including The New York Times, National Public Radio and Bloomberg News