Bishop Eddie Long sex scandal raises coverage issues

The gay sex scandal swirling around the Atlanta area’s Bishop Eddie Long has brought to the forefront coverage issues journalists wrestle with when writing about a complex and complicated story.

To date four men have come forward claiming that when they were in their late teens and members of Long’s New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, the bishop allegedly seduced them into sexual activity in exchange for expensive gifts and trips around the world. Long and his attorneys have denied the charges.

The problem for the media is with the word choices reporters and editors make in telling the story. At times, some news outlets have stumbled and chosen language that appears to conflate the allegations, while others have been more careful in how they report the story.

In its article published September 21 the New York Times labeled Long’s actions “sexual misconduct” and said two men had accused him of “repeatedly coerced them into having sex with him.” The Associated Press also chose the word “coerce” in its first story about the lawsuits filed by the men.

Yet various online sites, from the website allvoices.com to The Advocate, used the word “forced” in their headlines and postings about the scandal last week. In the Advocate’s case, it also used “minor” to refer to the two men making the allegations, however in a subsequent post about the story the gay news site steered clear of using both terms.

The New York Times in one story used “molested” to describe the allegations being made by one accuser. CNN, which was the first to report on the lawsuits, steered clear of “forced” and “molested” in its lengthy report last week about the story.

Using the word “forced” in reference to sexual acts carries with it a connotation of rape and it is unclear if that is what indeed took place between Long and his accusers. In interviews given to local TV news stations in Georgia two of the men making the allegations have not used that term, though one accuser has claimed Long gave him a sleeping pill prior to having sex with him.

Rather, one of the men said he had been “manipulated” by Bishop Long. He did call him a “predator” during the televised interview.

Using “minor” also appears to be inaccurate in this instance, as the age of consent in Georgia is 16. While some of the men were 15 when they first met Long, reported accounts have said the sexual abuse did not take place until they were 17 or 18 years of age and therefore state and federal officials have declined to launch investigations.

Some of the coverage appears to play into homophobic stereotypes of older gay men preying upon young males, such as this lede from a New York Daily News story:

A revered, anti-gay marriage Baptist pastor accused of having an appetite for sex with teen men used his megachurch’s academy to seduce his alleged victims, according to a new report.
The article goes on to use the terms “boys,” “young men,” and “men” interchangeably to refer to Long’s accusers.

Particularly while covering salacious stories, it is imperative that the news media treads carefully and doesn’t elevate the situation by using inaccurate terminology and word choices.

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