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Sticks, stones break bones, but names destroy

By Steve Yoder . . . In May, the AP Stylebook changed its guidelines for how reporters should refer to people with substance abuse problems. “Avoid words like alcoholic, addict, user and abuser unless they are in quotations or names of organizations,” says the 2017 version.

For those with addictions, that change won’t just shift how they’re portrayed but how they’re treated. A piece by Zachary Siegel in Slate last month noted that even veteran clinicians were more likely to recommend punitive measures for people described as “substance abusers” and rehab-oriented treatments for those referred to as “people with substance abuse disorders.” Even when people’s conditions are the result of personal choices, reporters avoid charged labels—that’s why those with diabetes aren’t described as “sugar abusers,” Siegel says.

So it’s time for editors to stop letting reporters use “predator” in describing those who’ve committed sexual offenses.

“Sexual predator” isn’t a clinical term that means anything to criminologists or sex-crime researchers. Instead, it’s a media construction created after horrific cases of rape and murder in Washington State in the early nineties, as criminologist Jacqueline Helfgott points out in her 2008 book Criminal Behavior: Theories, Typologies and Criminal Justice. Helfgott notes that the term doesn’t describe a “homogeneous group of offenders who are predictably dangerous with an identifiable (and treatable) mental illness.”

Instead, “predator” is a stick of dynamite used by partisans in crusades for ever-more ruthless penalties for people whose sexual offenses run the gamut. In reporting a story a few years ago, I talked to one source who was arguing for an even tougher crackdown on where offenders are allowed to live. “It’s common sense to keep these predators far away from our children,” he told me.

But the group he was describing—those on sex offender registries—is an ever-expanding hodgepodge. You can be registered for violating a custody arrangement, streaking, allowing your child to have consensual sex, visiting a prostitute,  and of course sexting a photo of yourself as a teen.  Registries also include people who do serious crimes like sexual assault and rape, for which they do ever-more serious time. Sentence lengths for sexual offenses have escalated–sex offenders are the fastest growing segment of state and federal prison populations (page 199).

Still, when reporters use “predator,” they do tell us something: that they’re in league with crusaders who are out to designate an out-group as monster of the moment.

In the late 1800s, it was black men. Portraying them as savage animals who couldn’t be controlled had a political purpose—to justify segregation, lynching, and racial purity laws. As the Jim Crow Museum puts it, “The brute caricature portrays black men as innately savage, animalistic, destructive, and criminal — deserving punishment, maybe death. This brute is a fiend, a sociopath, an anti-social menace. Black brutes are depicted as hideous, terrifying predators who target helpless victims, especially white women.”

LGBT people were next in the 1950s. Films…depicted gay men as predators who forced younger men into sex. That was designed to justify purges of gay employees from federal and state governments and state sodomy laws that allowed public and private employers to discriminate against LGBT employees.

By the mid-1990’s it was inner-city teens. Hillary Clinton and later Bush administration official John Dilulio described gang members as “super-predators”—“radically impulsive, brutally remorseless youngsters, including ever more preteen-age boys, who murder, assault, rape, rob, burglarize, deal deadly drugs, join gun-toting gangs and create serious communal disorders.”  What came next was a raft of state initiatives that shoved juveniles into the adult court system and sentenced them to previously unheard-of penalties. (The effects have been lasting–the U.S. juvenile incarceration rate is about four times that of second-place Great Britain, and the U.S. is the only country in the world that sentences kids to life in prison.)

Today, with the President out to get Congress to appropriate money for a border wall, he’s renewing his attack on unauthorized immigrants as bloodthirsty monsters. “We are cracking down hard on the foreign criminal gangs that have brought illegal drugs, violence, horrible bloodshed to peaceful neighborhoods all across our country,” he said in his July 25 speech. “The predators and criminal aliens who poison our communities with drugs and prey on innocent young people, these beautiful, beautiful, innocent young people will, will find no safe haven anywhere in our country…. And these are the animals that we’ve been protecting for so long.”

So neutral terms aren’t a polite concession when covering sex crime—they’re essential to fact-based reporting. A 2014 study asked a group of study subjects about their support for unsparing punishments for “sex offenders” and “juvenile sex offenders.” Those tested were much more likely to support harsh policies than a matched group exposed to the more neutral terms “people who have committed sexual offenses” and “minor youth who have committed sexual offenses”.

When describing someone who’s going to commit a crime, fact-based reporters should use “would-be offender” or just “offender.” When discussing someone with a sex crime in their past, “adults convicted of a sex crime” or “ex-offender” or “registrant” (if they’re on a state sex offender registry) or even “registered citizen” do just fine. (Readers, are there other terms that you suggest?)

Of course, there will be those who object that when a truly savage crime has been committed, words like “predator” are justified. But when heinous brutality is the story, the facts of the case will do just fine, thank you. Loading up sentences with scare words isn’t fact-based reporting—it’s yellow journalism.

Source: Life on the List

This topic contains 27 replies, has 3 voices, and was last updated by  Tom Cruz 2 months, 1 week ago.

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  • #18021 Reply

    Tom Cruz

    Can anything be done about these polygraph tests that the probation makes you take, and pay 200$ for them? These people that test you really love to humiliate those of us that have to take them.

    • #18048 Reply

      Maestro

      I’d like someone to challenge the reasons for polygraphs being ONLY for a sexual offense. I swear, the idea of public safety doesn’t include the guy with the semi automatic going into a gas station and killing or threatening to kill the employee for the cash drawer. Our “justice” system and the entire legal system in this country is a joke.

      • #18090 Reply

        Tom Cruz

        In Texas Polygraphs are not permitted in the courtroom, and if even there’s a mention that one has taken a poly it is not tolerated. If this is the case why are we subject to these self criminating devices? Something has to be done about this. Its bad enough that we have to take whatever small paying job we are given because of this offense, but these people are taking money that we don’t have. Here’s the thing, If we can’t pay we are in danger of incarceration. All these laws were made to be failed so these idiots could lock us up. But yet murderers whom have killed families, mothers, fathers, sons, daughters are getting slapped on the hand and walking free without being subject to what we are subject to. This is an outrage! Im good enough to pay taxes, yet I’m treated worse than leper in the bible.

  • #17862 Reply

    Lori

    This is a legal answer posted on our OK Voices website by an attorney who specializes in sex crime related cases.

    Legal Q&A:

    Is it entrapment:

    As an analogy to a drug case, if I tell someone that I will sell the marijuana without them asking me for it and they in fact buy the marijuana, they have not been entrapped. However, if I asked them to go across the street and buy marijuana for me and bring it back, and when they returned, I arrested them for possession or unlawful delivery, they have been entrapped. The question is whether or not the person is predisposed to commit the crime.
    The law does not require there to be a real person, merely that the defendant believed that he was making a proposal to a real person. In many of these instances someone posts an ad on Craig’s list, or Tulsa back pages, or some other website, and the defendant makes contact with them. During the conversation, it is revealed that the “person” is under the age of 16. In most of the cases I have seen there has been a question of whether or not that makes the difference. (The response to which is often quite damning.) Then the defendant continues the conversation and many times actually travels to the location where the person who has disclosed they are a juvenile is supposed to be to met them for sexual activity. Each of these separate actions is an action taken by the individual, not induced by the government. Therefore, it is not entrapment.

    • #17876 Reply

      Maestro

      I get that, but my point about this topic was that these undercover cops are FIRST posing as LEGAL AGE people on these sites. THEN they will say they are actually under age during conventions.
      For the conversation to even have occurred, the “actor” had to initially be under the impression that the “poster” of the profile ad was actually a legal aged person.
      In my opinion, and I’m sure the opinion of an attorney who realizes that enough is enough, that IS entrapment as the “actor” was intending to, or thinking he was contacting, a legal aged “poster”.

      In brief; These cops are CREATING criminals.

      Even if the “actor” would not chase after underage persons in his daily life, (much like many of us wouldn’t do drugs BUT if we’re at a party and it’s all around us, we MIGHT indulge) we are ALL guilty of making stupid decisions AFTER the fact (of finding out the person is underage for example, or getting high at a party but not going there with the intent to do so). But the courts and the cops treat these situations as if the original INTENT was to go online dating to find underage people and that is NOT what’s happening most times.

      If they want to catch actual child “predators”, they need to stop going on sites where you can’t post your age lower than 18 and just go into random chat rooms and just say “Hey, I’m 14/15, anyone wanna chat?” And THEN they’ll actually get the guys that are truly looking for that kind of thing.

      For the record, my case was NOT an online sting. I just have a very bad feeling toward such stings because they’re all done with complete dishonesty from the agents who are supposed to be honest people. Period.

      • #17930 Reply

        Chris

        The sad truth, my friend, is that the cops can legally tell you anything they want to get an arrest, and they do. I have first-hand experience with such. The detective who “interviewed” me tried several times to bait me into an admission of crimes that never happened, insinuating that my victim made those claims… even though I was honest and forthcoming nearly from the beginning about what I had done. My step-brother is a detective in another town, and he has confirmed that they are allowed to make false statements to suspects in order to secure a confession. My step-mom almost disowned him for that one.

  • #17767 Reply

    david

    Of course the Media uses terms like “predator” to describe ANY sex related offense. If it bleeds it leads. I responded to a Craigslist ad in a “bait and switch” sting and it was called “Man Arrested In Child Sex Trafficking Ring”. The many articles that followed the sting all used language like “child sex predator”, etc. to describe me.

    Often more misinformation is used to back up the sensationalized story. In my case it was reported as “shocking” the hundreds of responses these “ads posted by children'” received. Actually the ad was posted in the gay casual encounters section of Craigslist by someone (a cop no doubt) who originally claimed to be eighteen. Hardly shocking at all it received lots of attention.

    If the public knew the truth would they support the millions of federal dollars being spent on sex stings? Some still would, sure, but i bet many people would change their minds if these types of “bait and switch” stings were accurately portrayed by the Media.

    Misinformation helps support the story that’s being told to the public that we must live in fear- and only Big Brother can protect us. So if the Govt needs to strip some rights away to “protect the children” who dares object?

    In the not-too-distant future, when Big Brother is watching our every move, will our children be grateful we cashed in their rights for the illusion of protection?

    • #17776 Reply

      Maestro

      There should be a way to file a lawsuit against the cops that make fake profiles on Craigslist and dating sites and apps so that they can be held accountable for entrapment due to the FACT that they claim to be 18 in their profile age listing and then when you finally get involved in conversation, that’s when they hit you with “I’m really only 14”.

      There should be defense attorneys able to find a way to file a claim against the law enforcement agencies because they are hardly enforcing any laws by LYING that they are legal age and by posting that they are legal age, that’s what gets us to reply to their posts.
      So what I’m saying here is that a GOOD attorney can fight the shit out of this and make the claim that you are actually NOT a “child predator” and that these stings are nothing but pats on the back for agents that otherwise have no crime to go investigate.

      Something has got to be done. There must be a way.
      These law enforcement agents are the true predators.
      Now they’re on every dating app (phone app) that’s available. They claim being 18-20 and I’ve actually called a few of them out because the photos posted were so obviously young females. I’d write and say: “Hey, officer, catch any big fish today?” And within a few minutes the profile is gone. But they emerge again with a new profile and different photos.
      This shit has got to stop. No. Seriously. Our society is so hooked on sex but only in negative ways.

      • #17856 Reply

        Jonny everyman

        This lawyer took to catch a predator to court and won

        To Catch A Predator’ Sex Stings Net Mixed Results

      • #17793 Reply

        Kendal

        There is a way to deal with this situation…. as soon as they say they are 14 STOP TALKING TO THEM. If they are really 14, then they shouldn’t be on there, and you shouldn’t be talking to them. If possible report them to the app. If it is a cop, a few times of having to redo the ad or profile because they keep getting blocked, then maybe they will learn.

        Let’s face it, if you (and I don’t mean you personally) go to someone’s house that has said they are 14, then you deserve what you get, and you (again not you personally) are part of the reason that sex offender’s have such a bad name. There is no good excuse to be at that house. And if they didn’t say they were 14 until you got there, well you know where the door is.

        • #17817 Reply

          Maestro

          “There is a way to deal with this situation…. as soon as they say they are 14 STOP TALKING TO THEM”

          No kidding, really?
          How about the point of my comment which was, to sum it up; The cops are CREATING crimes with people who most likely had no intention of committing a crime in the first place. (And most all have no prior criminal record which is the part I love the most about the majority of the public buying into the registry scheme).

          And I actually like calling them out when I see their fake profiles. It’s quite fun.

        • #17996 Reply

          Kendal

          Well, to sum it up this way….

          If the moment that person says they are 14, you run away quickly, then the police have no crime to investigate. The cry of entrapment never comes from the person who didn’t do anything to be entrapped by.

          As far as you calling them out, good for you. I do kind of a similar thing, in that when I am talking to someone that then suddenly tells me they are underage, I report them to the app, then block them.

          And I definitely did not say that they cops were right in doing this. I also think it is a despicable practice done in the name of catching them there perverts (sound of a spittoon) but again, if the conversation is stopped the moment the age is mentioned, then the cops have nothing to go on.

        • #17794 Reply

          david

          Thanks Maestro. The thing is there never was an underage person involved so they didn’t really break the 18+ rule. And if the crime happened only in the imagination, then did my doubts about the person really being under 18 (and not just lying for some reason) cancel out any thoughts i had they might actually be under 18? And how can they be so sure what would have happened with a real underage person?

          My attorney advised me to settle- that going to a jury trial would be dangerous. Most likely he was correct but who knows- he’s from the area and maybe didn’t want to rock the boat. Sometimes i wonder what would have happened if i could have explained myself clearly to a jury of my peers or an unbiased judge. It’s not that i’m “innocent”- i’m not, and i made a poor choice and don’t think it was the proper thing to do or that what i did should be legal. Just don’t label me as a “child sex predator”.

          I’ve second guessed and re-played everything so many times now. One guy got eleven years so i feel lucky (relatively speaking) to have gotten jail and probation. This PD continues to do stings in my area. Must be dozens of guys arrested. Sometimes i wonder if a class action lawsuit is ever a possibility…

        • #17999 Reply

          Kendal

          I hope you are not thinking that I am picking on you, or are unfeeling towards your circumstances. I don’t even know what you’re circumstances are.

          I did have a friend that was talking to this guy online. The guy had said many times he was 18, they were developing an interest in each other, that had even webcammed many times. My friend decided to go meet this guy, and see what was there. When he arrived at the airport, he wasn’t greeted by this guy, he was greeted by the FBI, informed that this other guy was only 16, and that he was being charged with, I think it was crossing state lines for the purposes of having underage sex, or however they stated it.

        • #18022 Reply

          Maestro

          If the person told him numerous times that he’s 18 then that right there should be proof enough of 2 things;

          1) Your friend had no intentions of trying to get with an underage person and
          2) That was entrapment. Period.

          But in our “oh so great and wonderful country” attorneys will turn their heads and simply tell you that there’s “no defense against a sex case” which is pure utter bullshit. It’s just that no one wants to be bothered fighting sex cases. Especially the ones which I’m talking about where the cops are MANUFACTURING criminals out of people who initially had no criminal intent.
          What’s the point of having legal representation be it paid attorney or public pretender if there’s apparently no defense against a sex charge?

          Something has GOT to be done about this. Laws are never etched in stone for all of eternity. They get changed. But nothing is going to change if the people who CAN fight for change just simply sit on their asses.

  • #17718 Reply

    TL

    Chris, didn’t a recent SCOTUS decision find it unconstitutional to prohibit registrants from using social media?

    • #17766 Reply

      Sandy
      Keymaster

      I have no idea of Chris’s legal status, AND my legal knowledge is very limited, but I believe that the ruling you refer to is only applicable to those who are no longer under any sort of supervision.

      • #17929 Reply

        Chris

        Yup… I live in NC, where the Packingham challenge originated. But I still have a little over two years of post-release supervision (parole) and as Sandy pointed out the ruling only applies to those no longer under supervision. I asked P&P how the decision affected us and they said that they would still consider social media access to be a parole violation. I ain’t trying to test the limits of their generosity, so I abstain. For now.

  • #17695 Reply

    DW

    Grateful for your voice of reason Mr. Yoder, and for your journalistic integrity. Great article.

  • #17673 Reply

    Bill

    I was involved in the largest sexual offender treatment program in the U.S. back in 1991. Predator was only used for a small group of offenders that equated to about 1% of the sexual offender population.

    • #17684 Reply

      Sandy
      Keymaster

      Bill, I imagine that was an actual designation using specific criteria. Some states, such as Florida, divide those who are convicted of sexual crimes into two categories: sexual offenders and sexual predators. This post deals with the tendency of media to use the term ‘predators’ as a synonym for anyone on the registry.

      • #17740 Reply

        W.C.

        At one time “sexual predator” was applied to that small 1 to 3% of sex offenders who abducted, raped, and murdered children previously unknown to them. It was the Jacob Wetterling sort of offender.
        Now it’s a term used across the board because “predator” brings up frightening imagery and plays on people’s fears. The sad thing is that even when facts backed by evidence are submitted to the contrary, the masses still choose to hang on to the hate.

        Basically, people need to get honest and say it’s not that we’re afraid of you. It’s that you molested or raped an innocent child (or woman) and we’ll never forgive or forget what you’ve done. We hate your guts and want you and your kind exterminated from society. We don’t care about your so-called rights. You have no rights in our eyes; not even the right to keep breathing after you committed your crimes. This is even the sentiment of legislators and judges because they all are parents, grandparents, etc.

        Some court rulings are giving me hope that judges are starting to be more objective in their rulings as in the 6th Circuit’s ruling against Michigan or the SCOTUS ruling in Packingham v. North Carolina, or J.I. v. State of New Jersey Parole Board. Of course it could be that the laws have gotten so out of proportion that the judges’ hands are tied and can no longer ignore the punitive intent behind these laws without revealing their own bias for the whole world to see.

        • #17777 Reply

          Maestro

          Gotta love those people who say things like: “Send all sex offenders and LGBT off to an island somewhere”

          As if they don’t comprehend that people are born every day who may grow up to be the kinds of people they hate. Send us off out of society isn’t going to stop the future from happening. They tend to forget that we were all once those precious, innocent children once, too. LMAO
          I hate people.

        • #17818 Reply

          Maestro

          I wish it was possible to edit a comment after it’s posted. I can’t stand typos.

          My sentence should have read;

          “…who may grow up to be the KINDS of people they hate.” That’s what I get for typing on my phone with its auto spell.

        • #17826 Reply

          Robin
          Keymaster

          I made the change in your original post, Maestro. You should have 7 minutes of editing time for each reply. Let me know if you get a chance to test that out.

  • #17672 Reply

    Steven Yoder

    Thanks for that Chris, appreciate it. -SY

  • #17649 Reply

    Chris

    I hope Steve Yoder reads this page. I’m a big fan, and I would tell him so on Twitter if I was allowed on social media. Big time respect to true journalists who report facts (as they were taught in journalism school) and do not go for the splashy headline. I especially appreciate that he is willing to call out other journalists and editors.

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