Media misses the point at St. Michael's


Catholic Register, 19 November 2018

Ever since Watergate, scandals have been covered according to the adage: “It’s not the crime, it’s the coverup.”

It’s never been entirely true, as it is often the coverup that constitutes new crimes. But the point remains. A “third-rate burglary” brought down a president because he covered it up rather than allowed justice to be done.

That adage has been applied now for some time in the Catholic sexual abuse scandals. Indeed, it is not unusual for the lion’s share of attention to be given not to the victim and his or her story, nor to the perpetrator and his crimes, but rather to the superiors and their actions.

The Watergate question is often the only question that gets asked: “What did the bishop/pastor/principal know and when did he know it?”

The situation of St. Michael’s College School allows to see that media dynamic in action. That story is moving fast with new developments, including an “independent investigation” to examine the culture of the school which was announced on Nov. 18.

The facts of the cases brought to light, and subsequent criminal action, will be better known in the days and weeks ahead. My limited intention here is to examine how the media covered the story.

And we find something familiar. The story is not covered incorrectly, but incompletely. More to the point, the story is primarily about secondary things.

An assault story is primarily about the one assaulted and those alleged to have done the assaulting. It is also a story about the consequences of that, and the pursuit — or lack thereof — of justice.

Yet bad habits have crept into press coverage of sexual abuse stories, so that the secondary angle becomes the dominant angle. We saw that in the St. Mike’s story.

The primary story at St. Mike’s was that apparent “hazing” rituals on the sports teams subjected boys to humiliating behaviour — the “washroom” incident — and to degrading, violent behaviour of sexual nature — the “locker room” incident.

For a journalist, the story ought to be what happened, who was involved, and why it took place. Related questions certainly arise: Is this common, or unusual at St. Mike’s? At high schools in general? What might explain why what happened took place?

To be fair, this story is not easy to cover, particularly when those involved are teenagers, and not easy to reach for interviews.

That being conceded, it was a journalistic failure to put the school administration at the centre of the story. The “coverup” default was in firmly in place.

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