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Warning: We're about to say "sex"

Australian Broadcasting Company

I received an email last week from a listener angry enough to write the most common threat I hear from Michigan Radio listeners, “I will never donate to your station again!”

We hadn’t libeled or defamed this man. We didn’t misquote him or make an error in a story he thought was important. He wasn’t even accusing us of left-or-right wing bias.

What prompted this man’s anger was our reporting about a bill in the Michigan legislature. Right now in Michigan it’s not technically illegal for a teacher to have sex with a high school student if the student is also an adult. Lawmakers want to change that.

Here’s the offending sentence:  

“The bill was sparked by concerns from prosecutors who said they were unable to charge teachers who had sex with students if the students were over 18.”

The listener wrote that his 10 and 12 year old daughters were in the room when “these words came flying out of the radio without warning.” He was upset that our story created an uncomfortable conversation with his children, and suggested that any future stories with content not suitable for children contain a warning before the story airs.

I can’t imagine he had any idea the Penn State story would break this week, but I’m certain if he’s still listening he isn’t happy.

Our station is not the kind of station that airs stories simply because of their titillation value. We don’t report on women arrested while driving topless, or follow public officials into strip clubs for ambush interviews. But some stories are going to have adult themes, such as the coverage of the events at Penn State, or the proposed legislation described above.

Whenever we air a story we know may be particularly offensive, either because of adult sexual content or graphic descriptions of violence, we do caution listeners that some people might find the upcoming story offensive or uncomfortable. NPR even did that for Story Corps today.

(Oddly, I’ve never received a letter complaining that a story had too much violent content, only too much sexual content. Exposing children to violence doesn’t seem to generate letters.)

But none of us in the newsroom, not the writer, or the editor, or the anchor gave pause to the sentence about teachers having sex with students. None of us saw that sentence and thought, “Hey, wait a minute, that’s over the line.”

Part of the reason, of course, is that we don’t write our news stories with children in mind. We don’t promote ourselves as “safe for the whole family” and unfortunately, news often has ugly themes. I can come up with a very long list of topics that might create uncomfortable conversations if parents are listening to our station with children in earshot….terrorism, homosexuality, animal cruelty, kidnappings, genocide, racism, drug abuse, abortion, and of course the big one…sex.

Am I wrong to assume that adults should expect these issues and many others will be mentioned and even discussed during in-depth in news programs?

When we discussed this listener letter in our newsroom, responses ranged from, “It’s not our job to parent his children, he shouldn’t let them listen if he thinks it’s not suitable” to “This was a teachable moment for him. He could have talked about how sometimes grownups do bad things and the people who make the laws are trying to stop them.”

As a parent of my own young girls, I admit that realizing something is a “teachable moment” almost always happens long after the moment passes.

But for an adult oriented news station, it’s simply not possible to pre-warn every parent about an upcoming sentence they might not want their children to hear. I suppose we could do a rating system. (“The following news story is rated PG-13 for mature themes and a description of an adult presidential candidate allegedly misbehaving.”) While such a system might occasionally serve as good forward promotion, it would eat up a lot of time, and who would be responsible for rating each story?

Almost every bit of published advice on this topic tells parents they should talk to their children about what the kids see or hear on the news that may be disturbing. Clearly some parents would rather not be forced to have the discussion right now.

How do you handle this in your family? What would your advice to the station or this listener be?

Vincent Duffy has been news director at Michigan Radio since May 2007.
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