Watch Your Language

Pedophilia, gang rape and erroneous Fox29 reporting.

By Tara Murtha
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 21 | Posted Apr. 13, 2010

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Photo by PW Staff

I lose a lot of sleep as a journalist, and not just worrying about getting laid off. When I’m writing about issues that aren’t my home turf, I lie awake at night, paranoid that I might’ve unwittingly made poor word choices in a story going to print the next day, words that have political freight that I just didn’t think of or won’t understand until, inevitably, the angry phone calls begin.

Media folk writing about sensitive issues—the only things worth writing about, really— should lose sleep at night worrying about these things. As the late, great George Carlin said, you control information and language, you control thought to an extent.

Now, I normally don’t watch Fox News for obvious reasons. But after a recent episode of American Idol (team Bowersox), I accidentally caught some of MyFoxPhilly 29’s local news at 10.

I was shocked. Twice. First by the story of 45-year-old accused pedophile Kenneth Schneider. A local attorney, he allegedly traveled to Russia, found a 12-year-old victim and sexually assaulted or raped him for years. Unfortunately, in this day and age, that isn’t what’s shocking. It’s that Fox News reported that Schneider had been accused of traveling to Russia to have sex with a 12-year-old.

I went to the Web site to check it out and sure enough, the same language was there, along with another story so heinous it grabbed international headlines: In Trenton, N.J., a group of up to seven guys—a mix of adults and minors—paid a teenager for her 7-year-old sister. They allegedly gang-raped the girl as the rest of the partygoers looked on.

Yet, the lead in the Web site story began, “Police in New Jersey’s capital say a 15-year-old sold her 7-year-old sister to have sex with as many as seven men and boys.”

Breaking news: The 7-year-old girl from Trenton didn’t “have sex with” up to seven men. If there was sexual contact, she was gang-raped. The 12-year-old boy from Russia didn’t “have a sexual relationship with” the attorney either. If there was sexual contact, he was raped.

Since neither a 12-year-old nor 7-year-old can legally choose to have sex, there’s no room for any of the he said/she said game-playing that makes it so difficult to prosecute rapists who assault other adults. If sexual contact occurred, it was rape. Period.

“If this came to court and I were an expert witness, I think I would have a pretty good argument to say that these reporters are actually reporting the story wrong, that what they are saying is untrue,” says Dr. Muffy Siegel, associate professor of English at Temple University and forensic semanticist.

“We know that what comes in the subject position of ‘have sex with’ is someone who is actively and willingly having sex,” explains Dr. Siegel. “That’s part of the definition of the verb. Since it’s part of the definition … it’s a false statement to say that that little girl had sex with those men, because she wasn’t a willing agent.”

Siegel says that for a similar but technically distinct reason, the way Fox News described what the pedophile attorney did to the 12-year-old as having “a sexual relationship with” the boy is also incorrect.

She says the phrase belongs to a class called ‘symmetric verbs,’ which in layman’s terms means the action has to be consensual.

“It is false to use the verb if they both weren’t agents in it, and clearly they were not,” says Dr. Siegel.

Unfortunately, the issue isn’t just that Fox News is a geyser blowing steaming piles of bullshit into our brains (though of course, it does). They’re not alone. I’ve heard Oprah say “had sex with” when she meant rape, for chrissakes.

But it’s wrong. “[The listener] has in fact literally been told that the children were agents in this activity,” says Dr. Siegel.

We all know that euphemisms like adult entertainment or friendly fire or whirling, for locals who remember Philly media’s whimsical euphemism for the spate of sexual assaults at the Greek Picnic in the late ’90s—are dangerous. They’re new terms for old ideas that obscure and soften the old idea. George Carlin called it soft language.

“Americans have trouble facing the truth, so they invent the kind of soft language to protect themselves from it, and it gets worse with every generation. For some reason, it keeps getting worse,” said Carlin, more than 20 years ago.

Carlin’s beef was with word choice for war veteran’s psychological trauma. In the First World War, it was shell shock. In the second, it was battle fatigue. Takes a little longer to say. Doesn’t seem to hurt as much. The Korean War’s operational exhaustion became the Vietnam War’s post-traumatic stress disorder.

The language used by Fox News here is even more dangerous because it’s like a new breed of euphemism hidden in plain sight. The language exists already. It’s the language of the perpetrator—and his defense team. It’s language that takes the point of view of the attacker—it was consensual; we had sex but I didn’t rape her, man.

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Comments 1 - 21 of 21
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1. shotime369 said... on Apr 14, 2010 at 12:33AM

“Words are very powerful, and Carlin made a career out of joking about it. Being politically correct has softened the language, and made horrific acts easier to report. The latest Catholic church scandal is a prime example. The press uses the term "sexual abuse" for what was pedophilia, and rape. It almost decriminalizes what these sick animals did. Lives ruined, and the offenders protected. You said it a lot better than I did.

What do you expect from Fox news. The church is a cornerstone of their hateful politics. Look for some new euphimisms for blacks.”

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2. Anonymous said... on Apr 14, 2010 at 08:48AM

“Oy ve. The sentence is construed as being the perspective of the 12-year old, and it wasn't an endorsement. It's an absurdity but one must recognize that this pre-teen probably didn't think anything of it. A priest once told a man to place his most valuable possession in the collection basket and the man placed his mother's head there at the next Mass. Isn't the most shocking revelation in these heinous stories the possibility that the perp didn't think they were doing anything wrong? Or when confronted were merely remorseful - that they got caught?”

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3. Anonymous said... on Apr 14, 2010 at 10:46AM

“Instead of focusing on Fox you should have provided examples from several different stations/periodicals. It appears you suffer from the same deficiency as the fox reporters (unintentionally poor word/examples affecting the overall story and its message). Poorly written Tara. Normally you are better.”

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4. KC Race said... on Apr 14, 2010 at 11:27AM

“#3 - How many stations/periodicals need to be as careless as Fox in order for you to deem the story important?

It seems to me that this article is specifically about Fox's reporting (says so right in the headline, although Oprah is briefly mentioned). Over the past decade, for better or for worse (oh who am I kidding, it's pretty much always for worse) Fox has emerged as particularly adept at shaping rhetoric. The importance of semantics in shaping opinions on what is "important", "right", and "wrong" should not be underestimated.”

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5. Andrew P Crowley said... on Apr 14, 2010 at 12:11PM

“Agreed. We need to hold Fox for the ways in which it distorts information. When victims are portrayed as willing participants, people's lives and safety are at risk. Remember that Fox, like all TV media and most news media (scroll to the bottom of the page), exists for the sole purpose of selling advertisements. The subject of rape should and does make people uncomfortable; Fox has decided, as usual, that its audience is more likely to keep watching if the news is very digestible, so it chooses to appeal to the lowest common denominator of people who would rather hear a distorted truth than face something as awful as children being gang-raped in their own backyards.

But in doing so, Fox replaces the agency of the victims to tell their stories with a story that assigns them false agency, implicating them in their own injuries.

Tara, you're right to call attention to this disservice. Thank you.”

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6. cn2004 said... on Apr 14, 2010 at 12:47PM

“'Now, I normally don’t watch Fox News for obvious reasons.' Yes, the obvious reason being that you are a typical liberal moron.”

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7. Anonymous said... on Apr 14, 2010 at 12:59PM

“I think Tara Murtha has done a fine job of identifying and confronting an issue worth analysis and criticism. Isn't that what journalists are supposed to do? FOX and other lazy mainstream media channels could learn a thing or two.”

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8. The Thrill said... on Apr 14, 2010 at 01:26PM

“"Words are like weapons, sharper than knives."
I miss you, Michael Hutchence.
Nice column, Tara Murtha.”

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9. Anonymous said... on Apr 14, 2010 at 02:20PM

“The web story Murtha discusses was written by the Associated Press, not Fox 29 or Fox News. The identical story appears on at and was all over the Internet. But most AP stories disappear from the Internet after 2 weeks for legal reasons.

The AP would be the correct source and author of the story.”

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10. Anonymous said... on Apr 14, 2010 at 02:30PM

“YES Tara.

Fox News should either be wiped out or placed on the comedy network.”

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11. CAConrad said... on Apr 14, 2010 at 03:45PM

“This is an amazing story Tara! As the Philadelphia poet Frank Sherlock says, "I miss journalism when I watch the news." That's in his book OVER HERE (Factory School Books, 2009).”

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12. Anonymous said... on Apr 14, 2010 at 05:54PM

“Fox 29 is not Fox News people. Get is straight people. Many of the Fox-owned local stations cater to their local audiences and some even seem to carry a liberal bent as a result. I highly doubt Kerri-Lee (the eco/enviro freak) is a bill o'reilly conservative or her co-host - for obvious reasons. I like Fox 29 and think it is the best the local stations have to offer - but would not dream of putting on Fox News!”

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13. S3 said... on Apr 14, 2010 at 07:15PM

“Holy crap, get over it. I read this because a friend posted a link. Your story sucked, I'm sorry. It was boring and I saw no point to it.
People who work for free rags, that couln't exist without ad revenue from prostitution, shouldn't throw stones.

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14. Anonymous said... on Apr 15, 2010 at 01:17AM

“Prostitution, #13, is obviously a consensual act of exchanging sex for money. It is in no way comparable to the rape of a defenseless child. The striking parallel you attempted here rings dull. If you find abuse of our language to be "boring", then you are probably one of the many who distort it to relieve your mind from the overwork of thinking through what you say before you say it. You might reconsider what is at stake in every ordinary utterance.”

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15. Elizabeth Flynn said... on Apr 15, 2010 at 09:21AM

“So I feel like this thread of comments is really missing the point of the article, and that is that adopting softened language for despicable events by the media aid the public's unconscious sympathy towards the perpetrator. The interesting thing is, on a network that so routinely sells ideology and policy to individuals who embrace it despite its negative consequences in "real Life," what is the advantage of this softened language, especially in regards to sex crimes against females and minors? A network with a unapologetic lean toward radical conservative politics backhands women, children, and rape victims "unintentionally" through their choice of words? Just a coincidence or sign of the times? No. Word choice and the choice of perspective that it highlights is always a product of the underlying moral code and ideological bent of the speaker, and the fact that Fox news is consistently making this mistake is just another example of how far they have strayed from objectivity.”

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16. brendancalling said... on Apr 15, 2010 at 10:45AM

“great piece Tara, and thank you. as someone who values the meaning of words, it is appalling to see "rape" described as "sexual relations". And for that matter to see what used to be known as "shell shock" defined down to "battle fatigue", and then into the acronym "PTSD" which doesn't really have any heft whatsoever.

it's not just FOX which does this, by the way (although they are extreme purveyors of lies, propaganda, and misinformation). You see and hear it everywhere: it's the use of words to undermine the meaning of language.

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17. Robert said... on Apr 17, 2010 at 05:13AM

“This article is nonsense. Dr. Siegel is simply wrong when she says “We know that what comes in the subject position of ‘have sex with’ is someone who is actively and willingly having sex ... That’s part of the definition of the verb". Before now I have never encountered someone who believes this is the meaning of "to have sex with", and the fact that many other people do not use the verb in this way proves that is not what it means. The article admits this when it says "Unfortunately, the issue isn’t just [with] Fox News .... They’re not alone. I’ve heard Oprah say “had sex with” when she meant rape..." Tara Murtha tries to claim that this is because Fox News and Oprah are both wrong in their use of the language. But this is the English language, not French. The meaning of words is decided by how ordinary people use them, and ordinary people use the verb "to have sex with" in a way that covers both consensual and non-consensual sex.

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18. Rubbish said... on Apr 20, 2010 at 08:41PM

“Sounds like someone didn't do their research and just has a chip on their shoulder against a local Fox affiliate. Local Fox 29 is not the same as the national FOX News network, but the author seems to purposely mention Fox News over and over, pushing an agenda against the national Fox News network. Kudos to the reader who did some research (which today means a Google search) and found that the story originated from the AP and was also picked up by the national network MSNBC. Maybe that reader can become a "journalist" and start writing for the Philadelphia Weekly. Bad form on Tara for calling out a local news affiliate and even posting the picture of an anchor for reading a story reported by the AP and picked up by news stations around the world (again, Google search).

The opinion of the use of the wording in the AP story can be argued, but to blame that solely and repeatedly on "Fox News" is just sloppy and shows an obvious agenda by the writer.”

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19. PatronStOfTofu said... on Mar 10, 2011 at 11:07AM

“Thank you for a well-argued point. "Non-consensual sex" is rape. Calling it sex represents a very disturbing view of sexuality.

As Ms. Murtha suggests, this problem is by no means limited to Fox News. The NYT did a tremendous job blaming a 11-year-old for getting gang-raped as well.”

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20. Sam Blunt said... on Mar 11, 2011 at 07:07PM

“BRAVO! *applauds* I have been repeating these sentiments for years! Thank you.”

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21. Jerod said... on Mar 12, 2011 at 03:39PM

“I agree that softening of the language of sexual crimes is a major problem. But PTSD?. First of all, "shell-shocked" implied a physical cause that is not actually necessary for the individual to be experiencing symptoms. Some soldiers were treated as "cowards" or even "traitors" because it was deemed that they hadn't been injured enough to be "shell shocked". "Battle fatigue" was a bit more broad and was also designed to reduce the stigma that soldiers faced up to that point. Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder broadened the scope of the issue since it was determined that battle was not the only cause of the symptoms being faced. Also, as with many mental health problems, the name is often reduced to an acronym to reduce the HUGE stigma that is faced by people suffering from mental illness. The greatest obstacle in treatment of PTSD is that most do not seek treatment because they don't want people to think they are crazy or weak.”


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