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  • Don’t erase stories of abuse with vague headlines

    Blog ››› ››› PAM VOGEL


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    Media outlets are undeniably publishing more reports about sexual misconduct than ever before, which means that while longtime experts on this sensitive topic are working in overdrive, a whole new swath of writers are in need of guidance on how to cover this topic with respect and accuracy.

    A recently reported story about a Tennessee pastor’s sexual assault of a teenager inadvertently highlighted one best practice for covering this topic: Don’t summarize reporting with vague words that obscure the details of abuse -- especially when those words are borrowed from the admitted offender himself.

    On January 5, a woman named Jules Woodson shared on a blog her account of sexual assault by Memphis pastor Andy Savage. Here is an excerpt from Woodson’s description of the assault, which she says occurred when she was 17 years old:  

    We reached a dead end and he turned the truck around before putting it in park. We were stopped, and he turned the headlights off. Suddenly, Andy unzipped his jeans and pulled out his penis. He asked me to suck it. I was scared and embarrassed, but I did it. I remember feeling that this must mean that Andy loved me. He then asked me to unbutton my shirt. I did. He started touching me over my bra and then lifted my bra up and began touching my breasts.

    After what I believe to have been about 5 minutes of this going on, he suddenly stopped, got out of the truck and ran around the back and to my side before falling to his knees. I quickly buttoned my shirt back up and got out of the truck. Now I was terrified and ashamed. I remember him pleading, while he was on his knees with his hands up on his head, ‘Oh my god, oh my god. What have I done? Oh my god, I'm so sorry. You can't tell anyone Jules, please. You have to take this to the grave with you.’  He said that several times. My fear and shame quickly turned to anger. I had just been manipulated and used.

    Days later, Savage vaguely addressed Woodson’s account in front of his congregation, admitting to “a sexual incident” and asking for forgiveness; he was given a standing ovation.

    National outlets covered Woodson’s admission of assault -- and his congregation’s reaction -- and generally took care to include details about Woodson’s experience in her own words. That careful work was undone, however, when several outlets ran their pieces with headlines that adopted Savage’s wording and essentially obscured the realities of the abuse.

    Rather than label the stories with simple, accurate headlines that state what happened (i.e. “Memphis pastor admits to sexually assaulting teenager”), Slade Sohmer noted on Twitter that some outlets relied on Savage’s minimizing word choice (“sexual incident") instead: 

    [The New York Times, 1/9/18

    [The Washington Post, 1/10/18

    [CBS News, 1/9/18]

    [Newsweek, 1/10/18]

    [New York Daily News, 1/9/18

    In spite of reporters’ efforts to center Woodson’s account of the assault and to provide context about the ways the church community treated -- or even erased -- Savage’s misconduct at the time, so many news consumers will only see the vague, dismissive term “incident,” mirroring the language of the admitted offender.

    This isn’t the first time media have allowed a predator’s own words to set the terms of a public conversation about abuse. Every time they fail to properly identify assault, they do a disservice to readers and contribute to the system of injustice survivors continually encounter at every turn.

    After all, if you saw just these headlines what would you think happened to Jules Woodson twenty years ago? Is it what Andy Savage would want you to think?

  • The bigotry of Sean Hannity's early influencers

    ››› ››› BOBBY LEWIS

    In a recent profile, Fox host Sean Hannity named three right-wing media figures from the second half of the 20th century -- Bob Grant (1929-2013), Taylor Caldwell (1900-1985), and Barry Farber (1930-present) -- as inspirations for his own political commentary. A Media Matters investigation into content produced by Grant, Caldwell, and Farber revealed a trove of bigotry; Grant “routinely” called black people “savages,” Calwell had a political allegiance with “one of the most virulent anti-Semitic propagandists in the United States,” and Farber is a self-professed "birther" who pushed conspiracy theories about former President Barack Obama.

  • Fox and Breitbart are helping Trump mainstream the term “chain migration,” a misleading nativist buzzword

    ››› ››› DINA RADTKE

    As President Donald Trump rehashes his plan to end so-called “chain migration,” Fox News and Breitbart have been using the pejorative term for family-based immigration more often. The term serves to downplay the many advantages of family reunification policies and falsely conjure images of an unbridled flow of unskilled, unvetted immigrants into the country.

  • Bill O’Reilly Repeatedly Smeared Women Who Spoke Up About Sexual Harassment And Assault

    O’Reilly Has Barely Responded To Accusations Made Against Him

    ››› ››› MADELINE PELTZ & JULIE ALDERMAN

    Fox News’ The O’Reilly Factor has lost at least 20 advertisers since a New York Times report revealed that host Bill O’Reilly and Fox News’ parent company, 21st Century Fox, paid $13 million to five women who made sexual harassment allegations against O’Reilly. O’Reilly denied all wrongdoing in a brief statement on April 1, and he has refused to address the situation on air. In the past, O’Reilly has repeatedly smeared women who accused men of sexual harassment and assault and defended multiple men against a variety of such allegations.

  • Front Page Headlines Fall For Trump’s Press Conference Trap

    ››› ››› LIS POWER

    Following a press conference featuring many questions about ex-national security adviser Michael Flynn and whether President Donald Trump’s campaign was in frequent communication with Russia, front page newspaper headlines the next day hyped “ringmaster Don” and his assertion that he “inherited a mess” while de-emphasizing unanswered questions and new reporting about the Flynn and Russia controversies.

  • The Muslim Ban Is A Religious Test Built On A False Premise

    Right-Wing Media Adopt Trump’s Absurd Claim That His Executive Order Is Not A Muslim Ban

    ››› ››› NINA MAST

    After Trump signed an executive order banning refugees and visitors from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States, his administration and right-wing media allies defended the action as “perfectly legal” and “not a Muslim ban.” Yet mainstream media figures and experts explained that the executive order’s exception for religious minorities renders it a de facto religious test. Trump and his advisers explicitly called for a Muslim ban during the last year of his campaign, and the administration’s claim that the order’s religious exception is necessitated by disproportionate persecution of Christians in the Middle East has been debunked.

  • Architect Of CIA's Waterboarding Program And Fox & Friends Host Mislead About Torture

    ››› ››› NICK FERNANDEZ

    Fox host Brian Kilmeade praised waterboarding, claiming it “yield[ed] tremendous results,” during an error-filled interview with psychologist James Mitchell, the man who created the CIA’s so-called “enhanced interrogation” program. Mitchell and Kilmeade promoted numerous misleading arguments about the supposed effectiveness of torture as a form of interrogation while promoting Mitchell's upcoming memoir. Fox figures have previously spoken out in support of reinstating waterboarding as an interrogation technique, even though experts have condemned the practice, saying that it constitutes torture, is illegal under American and international law, and “yielded no intelligence.” 

  • UPDATED: Must-Read Accounts From Women Who Have Actually Had Late-Term Abortions

    Media Highlight Experiences That Debunk Trump’s Deceptive Claims About Late-Term Abortion

    ››› ››› SHARON KANN

    During the final debate of the 2016 election, Republican nominee Donald Trump relied on right-wing media myths to allege that Hillary Clinton supports so-called “partial-birth” abortion. In reality, “partial birth” is a medically and legally inaccurate term invented by anti-choice groups -- a fact media have highlighted by giving individuals who have had late-term abortions a platform to both describe their experiences and, in some cases, directly refute Trump’s misinformed descriptions of the process.