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When Sexual 'Misconduct' Is So Much More

U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore speaks at the Vestavia Hills Public library, Saturday, Nov. 11, 2017, in Vestavia Hills, Ala.
Hal Yeager
U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore speaks at the Vestavia Hills Public library, Saturday, Nov. 11, 2017, in Vestavia Hills, Ala.

Sexual "misconduct," "abuse," "assault," and "harassment." NPR has used all — sometimes multiple descriptors in the same story — to characterize the allegations that have been leveled against former Alabama judge and current Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore.

For some listeners, calling the allegations "misconduct" minimizes them.

"Please stop using the phrase 'sexual misconduct' to describe Roy Moore's alleged abuse of children. The allegations are about sexual assault, sexual abuse, sexually predatory behavior. 'Sexual misconduct' doesn't cut it," wrote Marjory Ruderman, of Charlottesville, Va.

Other listeners have complained about a single reference, in this story, to Moore's alleged victims as "very young women," instead of "teenagers." (That issue seems to surface regularly; NPR recently changed the headline in this piece, which initially only referred to the teenage victims as women and not as girls, following many social media complaints.)

NPR should always use very clear language when describing any situation.

As Mark Memmott, NPR's standards and practices editor, often points out, the best language is to give the actual facts, to the extent they can be known; labels should be secondary. That means including the ages of the alleged victims, or descriptions in their own words, of what they said happened to them.

But labels are also sometimes necessary for the fluidity of the narrative, and in particular for headlines and for newscasts, where the amount of space or time for detailed description is limited.

We went back and looked at the many stories devoted to the Moore allegations, as well as some of the other recent coverage of sexual harassment and abuse. For the most part, the reporting has been quite clear. Even the story that used the inexact phrase "very young women" also called them "teenagers" and specified the age (16 at the time) of one of the alleged victims. The story also quoted her saying, "And he then looked at me, and he told me — he said, you're just a child." I don't believe any listener would have come away misled.

As for the phrase "sexual misconduct," NPR has used it quite a bit. Perhaps too much; it's a convenient catchall, but it means different things to different people. At the same time, many of the stories that use the phrase, either in the headline or in the story itself, also include sound bites of the accusers, which include more detail. Still, NPR should sharpen its language in these stories. As Memmott wrote in recent guidance to the newsroom, "To only say he's accused of 'misconduct' or 'inappropriate' behavior does not reflect the seriousness of the accusations."

[Memmott's advice appears to have been heeded in NPR's Thursday and Friday coverage of allegations against Sen. Al Franken (D.-Minn.), which refers clearly to accusations of behavior that would be "sexual assault." The Franken story also underscores the need for descriptions, and not just labels, since the Moore and Franken allegations are on a different scale.]

'Underscore The Severity' With Language

Memmott's recent note to the newsroom also addresses other language issues that have irked NPR listeners and readers recently, most notably the use of the phrase "shooting spree" to describe the Northern California mass shooting earlier this week. (NPR also used it to describe the earlier Texas church attack, as well as the Las Vegas mass shooting.)

In this instance, as well, Memmott's guidance is "to keep using words and phrases that underscore the severity of what happened."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elizabeth Jensen was appointed as NPR's Public Editor in January 2015. In this role, she serves as the public's representative to NPR, responsible for bringing transparency to matters of journalism and journalism ethics. The Public Editor receives tens of thousands of listener inquiries annually and responds to significant queries, comments and criticisms.