Resources for Covering Sexual Abuse of Children

The trial of Jerry Sandusky and the Penn State scandal have brought the topic of sexual abuse of children to the forefront. It's a complicated issue that has to be covered carefully, fairly and with great sensitivity.
Journalistic ethics and principles may be tested as journalists struggle to present the facts without harming victims or accused perpetrators. Journalists covering child sex abuse are likely to face emotional or angry sources. In researching the topic, journalists may need to make sense of confusing descriptions of mental disorders that could lead a person to engage in sexual abuse of children, and they might even encounter cultural or religious beliefs that seem to justify such behavior. Yet in the end, they must create thorough, balanced coverage of this highly charged issue.
Resources on this page will enable journalists to meet these challenges. These resources are provided as part of a Specialized Reporting Institute, "Covering Child Sex Abuse," hosted at The Poynter Institute on July 9-10, 2012. The SRI was funded by the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.

Find an Expert

Maia Christopher, executive director, Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers, (503) 643-1023,

Tracy Cox, communications director, National Sexual Violence Resource Center, 717-909-0710 ext.116,

Julie Drizin, director, University of Maryland Journalism Center on Children & Families, 301-405-8812,

Beverly Fortson, Ph.D., behavioral scientist, Division of Violence Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 770-488-1284,

Kelly McBride, senior faculty, ethics, reporting & writing, The Poynter Institute, 727-553-4340,

Wendy Murphy, JD, New England School of Law,

Twitter Tags to Watch

@Darkness2Light Darkness to Light strives to raise awareness and educate adults about preventing child sexual abuse

@forsakengen Forsaken Generation advocates to end child sex trafficking

@NSVRC National Sexual Violence Resource Center is a national information and resource hub relating to all aspects of sexual violence

@PCAAmerica Prevent Child Abuse America works to prevent child abuse and neglect


The Foundation to Abolish Child Sex Abuse (FACSA) aggregates related news from around the world

Overcoming Sexual Abuse inspires, empowers, educates & supports survivors of sexual abuse; the site hosts several blogs

Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape blog; PCAR works to eliminate all forms of sexual violence and advocates for the rights and needs of victims of sexual assault

The SAAM (Sexual Assault Awareness Month) blog, on the National Sexual Violence Resource Center website, offers information on prevention, building awareness and creating campaigns for change

What Others Are Doing

Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting on child sex abuse scandal involving Jerry Sandusky and Penn State, Sara Ganim, Harrisburg Patriot News, 2011

Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting on Catholic Church child sex abuse scandal, Boston Globe, 2002

Rape victim opens up about botched MCSO investigation, Morgan Loew, Sept. 28, 2012

5 Major Obstacles Journalists Face When Covering Child Sex Abuse, Dan Reimold, July 16, 2012

Antioch Sisters Suing for Missed Chances to Stop Years of Sexual Abuse, Malaika Fraley, Contra Costa Times, May 16, 2012

Stalking the Bogeyman, Personal account of a child sex abuse survivor’s plan to confront his abuser years later, David Holthouse, Westword, 2004; Holthouse also shared the story on This American Life, 2011

Parents of Slain Volunteer Say Peace Corps Error Led to Murder, ABC News investigation into the murder of a Peace Corps volunteer and series of volunteer sexual assaults allegedly mishandled by organization, Brian Ross, ABC News, 2011

Study: Many Sex Offenders are Kids Themselves, Wendy Koch, USA TODAY, January 5, 2010

Miami Sex Offenders Limited to Life Under a Bridge, Lane DeGregory, Tampa Bay Times (then the St. Petersburg Times), August 16, 2009

Teen Sex Abuse: A Gender Double Standard, Allison Manning, Quincy Patriot Ledger, January 13, 2009

Decades Later, Siblings Unite to Report Childhood Sexual Abuse, Robert Patrick, Sarasota Herald-Tribune, May 4, 2003

Rape more common than smoking in the US, Stephanie Kovalchik, Significance magazine

Key Resources

Research and Records

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): One of the largest investigations ever conducted to assess associations between childhood maltreatment and later-life health and well-being

Child Sexual Abuse, National Center for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs: A fact sheet outlining related behavior, perpetrators, effects and observation and reporting methods

Media Packet: What is Child Sexual Abuse?, National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC): A packet available in .txt and .pdf formats providing helpful summaries about the types, victims, perpetrators, incidences and warning signs of child sexual abuse; a second, more comprehensive, packet addresses a broader range of sexual violence

National Data Archive on Child Abuse and Neglect (NDACAN), College of Human Ecology, Cornell University: A hub for scholarly research and data on chlld abuse

National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect (NIS-4), 2004-2009: Report from the Administration for Children & Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, (NISVS), the CDC's latest data on sexual violence, relased in December 2011

Writing About Sexual Abuse of Children

Journalism Center on Children & Families (JCCF): Nonprofit program that recognizes exemplary reporting on children and families, including reporting on child abuse and neglect

Judicial Language Project (JLP), Center for Law and Social Responsibility, New England Law | Boston: A running list of problematic language used during sexual assault cases and a competing list of more appropriate terms and phrases to employ

Reporting on Child Sexual Abuse, The National Center for Victims of Crime: Reporter resources featuring a guide to terminology, contextual information, related statistics, criminal and civil justice procedures and reporting do’s and don’ts

Sandusky Case Resources and Trial Packet, resources gathered by the National Sexual Violence Resource Center

Yale Daily News, New York Times Both Make Wrong Call on Patrick Witt Sexual Assault Complaint Coverage: A description by Poynter faculty member Kelly McBride of common errors by journalists in their coverage of sexual assault

Advocacy Organizations

AEquitas: Works toward justice in sexual assault, domestic violence, stalking and dating violence cases by educating prosecutors and broadening the concept of justice in these cases

Child Welfare Information Gateway, part of the Administration on Children, Youth and Families and the Administration for Children and Families, within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: Connects child welfare and related professionals to comprehensive information and resources to help protect children and strengthen families

Darkness to Light: Nonprofit with the mission of reducing the incidence of child sexual abuse through public awareness and education

Jeff Anderson & Associates: Law firm that pioneered the use of civil litigation to seek justice for survivors of childhood sex abuse; influential in representing victims of clergy sex abuse

National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC): Offers information and resources on all aspects of sexual violence, including intervention and prevention strategies

National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC): Resource center for the public, parents, law enforcement and others about the issues surrounding the sexual exploitation of children

Prevent Child Abuse America: Aims to raise awareness and educate toward preventing the abuse and neglect of our nation’s children

Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN): Creator and operator of National Sexual Assault Hotline; carries out programs to prevent sexual violence, help victims and ensure that rapists are brought to justice

Stop It Now!: Prevents the sexual abuse of children by mobilizing adults, families and communities to take actions that protect children

Children of Domestic Violence: Dedicated to breaking the cycle of violence. See their website for resources.

Comprehending Pedophilia

A definition of pedophilia from the Encyclopedia of Mental Disorders

Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers (ATSA): Professional organization of clinicians and researchers providing treatment to sex offenders

Pedophilia: Comprehensive Time magazine article about pedophilia

WebMD FAQ on Pedophilia

Resources from the SRI

Truth and Fairness When Reporting on Child Sexual Abuse: Kelly McBride's SRI presentation on using your ethical journalism tools to ensure that your coverage of sex abuse is fair, doesn't perpetuate stereotypes and shields victims

Highlights of SRI presentation by Sara Ganim, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who broke the first story about the Jerry Sandusky scandal

Sex Offender Registries

Dru Sjodin National Sex Offender Public Website (NSOPW), coordinated by the U.S. Department of Justice: An advanced search tool that allows a user to submit a single national query to obtain information about sex offenders; a listing of public registry websites by state, territory and tribe; and information on sexual abuse education and prevention

Sex Offender Registry Websites, Federal Bureau of Investigation: A portal for national sex offender registry searches

A Perpetrator's Viewpoint

Throughout history, there have been people who argue that "consensual" sexual relationships between adults and children are both possible and harmless. It is possible —and might even be necessary — for journalists to explain this viewpoint. To gain some insight into these beliefs, visit: Wikipedia's article on the North American Man/Boy Love Association and the NAMbLA website.


Engaging Bystanders in Sexual Violence Prevention, by Joan Tabachnick, National Sexual Violence Resource Center, 2009: Can be downloaded from the NSVRC website

Predators: Pedophiles, Rapists & Other Sex Offenders: Who They Are, How They Operate and How We Can Protect Ourselves and Our Children by Anna C. Salter, Ph.D., Basic Books, 2004

Re-visioning the Sexual Violence Continuum, L. Guy, Partners in Social Change, Fall 2006: Note graphics on pages 5 and 7

Virgin or Vamp: How the Press Covers Sex Crimes by Helen Benedict, Oxford University Press, USA, 1993



Covering Sexual Assault: A Webinar replay that examines issues tied to covering sexual assult. Improve your awareness, increase your sensitivity in interviewing victims, know the rights of the accused and learn to understand public reports and surveys.

Trauma Awareness: What Every Journalist Needs to Know: This Webinar replay will teach you to recognize and manage stress and trauma, both in yourself and in your sources.

Seminar Snapshot

Covering Child Sex Abuse: Lessons from the Sandusky Story: Watch video highlights from Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Sara Ganim's presentation on breaking the Sandusky story. Her presentation took place at the SRI, "Covering Child Sex Abuse," hosted at The Poynter Institute. Sara describes how she went beyond court documents, legal jargon and news releases to uncover and verify information and piece together her story.

Self-Directed Courses

Reporting on Sexual Violence: Learn to report accurately and dispel myths surrounding sexual violence.

Introduction to Ethical Decision-Making: Covering the sexual abuse of children can test your ethical decision-making skills. This course will help you identify, understand and practice those skills before you're faced with a tough call on deadline. It will also give you the confidence to meet that challenge.

Journalism and Trauma: The skills for interviewing traumatized victims and their families do not always come naturally. As a reporter covering sexual abuse of children, you'll need heightened awareness and sensitivity. This course will teach you how traumatic stress affects victims and how to interview trauma victims with compassion and respect.

Additional Training and Tips

How to Cover the Freeh Report on Penn State, Child Sexual Abuse: Poynter's senior faculty member for ethics, Kelly McBride, offers tips for ensuring that your coverage supports survivors of sexual abuse, educates your community and holds institutions accountable for preventing the sexual abuse of children.

How Open Records Law Would Have Stopped Sex Abuse Sooner at Penn State: Poynter's Al Tompkins argues for improved open records laws that would assist journalists in their role as public watchdogs.

Sara Ganim Explains How She Develops Sources, Gets Them to Open Up: Highlights from her talk at Poynter about the challenges of covering child sex abuse and how she develops sources, reports stories on sensitive subject matters and uses social media.