New Study Shows Media Underreport Child Sexual Abuse, Miss Key Aspects of Issue

For Immediate Release

Ms. Foundation for Women

Heather Gehlert, BMSG
(510) 204-9700,
Irene Schneeweis, Ms. Foundation for Women
(212) 709-4418,

New Study Shows Media Underreport Child Sexual Abuse, Miss Key Aspects of Issue

Criminal justice focus leaves prevention out of the story

NEW YORK - Tens of thousands of children are sexually abused each year in the United States, yet news coverage of the subject is out of sync with both the magnitude of the issue and the context in which it occurs. This finding comes from a study commissioned by the Ms. Foundation for Women as part of a groundbreaking partnership with the NoVo Foundation and individual donors to end child sexual abuse in the United States. The report was released in May by Berkeley Media Studies Group, a project of the Public Health Institute.

The study, Case by Case: News coverage of child sexual abuse, examined national news stories on child sexual abuse published between 2007 and 2009. Fewer than one story a week focused on the topic and even fewer covered the issue in detail. Several troubling patterns emerged in existing coverage of child sexual abuse:

  • The language used to describe the abuse was often vague and inconsistent. Many articles contained ambiguous phrases, such as “sexual acts,” “inappropriate sexual behavior,” and “lewd and lascivious acts with a child.” Such imprecise language limits the public’s understanding of the issue and disguises its severity.
  • Nearly three quarters (73 percent) of stories were tied to a criminal justice news hook such as an arrest or trial that related to the aftermath of the abuse. This type of coverage puts the emphasis on the perpetrator instead of on the impact the abuse has on victims, their families, and the wider community. Such coverage also portrays child sexual abuse as an isolated event, ignoring its larger social context.
  • Prevention was rarely mentioned. Less than one-third (30 percent) of stories discussed solutions. Of those, the overwhelming majority focused on interventions to address abuse after the fact, while only a handful looked at preventing future abuse.

“We all have a responsibility to end child sexual abuse and as this report demonstrates, the media can and should play a stronger role in helping policymakers and the public understand the root causes of abuse and what each of us can do to prevent it,” said Monique Hoeflinger, senior program officer at the Ms. Foundation for Women.

Case by Case was released just as the Ms. Foundation announced $600,000 in grants to a total of 15 organizations as part of its program to end child sexual abuse.  The awardees—representing local, state and national groups working in 14 states across the country—include faith-based, arts, domestic violence and survivor-led groups as well as sexual assault coalitions and child abuse prevention organizations.

“This report will be an incredible resource for advocates nationwide, including the organizations we support directly,” continued Hoeflinger. “From working within Native American and religious communities, to advocating for new federal policies, our grantees are pursuing innovative strategies to shift public thinking and engage families, communities and policymakers to end child sexual abuse once and for all.”

Case by Case was written by Lori Dorfman, DrPH, Pamela Mejia, MPH, MS, Andrew Cheyne, CPhil, and Priscilla Gonzalez, MPH, of Berkeley Media Studies Group.

Read the full report:

Learn more about the Ms. Foundation’s work to end child sexual abuse:


About the Berkeley Media Studies Group
BMSG researches the way public health issues are characterized in the news and helps community groups, journalists and advocates use the media to advance healthy public policy. BMSG is a project of the Public Health Institute.



The Ms. Foundation for Women is the leading national social justice foundation committed to building women’s power to ignite change. Every day, it helps over 150 grassroots organizations across the US fight for changes like good paying jobs, reproductive health, ending violence against women and girls, and the inclusion of women at decision-making tables. By investing in social justice trailblazers—especially women from low-income communities and communities of color most affected by injustice—it works for a nation in which power and possibility are not limited by gender, race, class, or any other factor. The Ms. Foundation delivers funding, builds skills and connects activists with allies to create change that benefits women, families and communities. Since 1973, the Ms. Foundation has invested over $54 million and influenced other funders to support solutions from the ground up.

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