Why are news outlets using the phrase “underage women” when the 14-page indictment against Jeffrey Epstein does not include the words “woman” or “women”? Why is “sex with minors” being used instead of “assault” or “rape”? Why are major networks using file photos that depict Epstein as “financier” rather than as accused sex trafficker? Could newsrooms be sanitizing truth, revealing bias or social privilege?
As the video shows, reporters and television anchors have been using the term “underage women” to such extent that their outlets are being called out for bias. The origin of the term is mystifying in as much as the indictment against Jeffrey Epstein uses “underage” three times (“underage victims” once and “victims were underage” twice). It does not use the term “woman” or “women”; it uses “girl” or “girls” (often in the phrase “minor girls”) 21 times.
Viewing these reports, one has to wonder whether reporters have read the indictment that details charges against Epstein in stark terms. Consider the opening salvo by the Southern District of New York:
(Sex Trafficking Conspiracy) The Grand Jury charges: OVERVIEW
1. . As set forth herein, over the course of many years, JEFFREY EPSTEIN, the defendant, sexually exploited and abused dozens of minor girls at his homes in Manhattan, New York, and Palm Beach, Florida, among other locations.
Another example of media bias involves headshots (not mugshots) of Epstein downloaded from Internet that portray him as a professional of high social standing. When you search his name on Google, you get this headshot (as of July 14):
Here is a July 12 example juxtaposed to a mugshot in an ABC News report to show the difference in portrayals. The photo on the left was used in a segment about President Trump’s then Labor Secretary Alex Acosta who negotiated a lenient deal for Epstein in 2008 when Acosta was the U.S. attorney for Southern Florida. (Acosta resigned because of that involvement.)
Lapses such as “underage women” tarnish journalism, fueling charges of elitism and media bias. This is especially unfortunate in light of stellar investigative reporting by Julie K. Brown of The Miami Herald, which exposed “the deal of a lifetime.” Some 11 years ago, Epstein could have spent the rest of his life in prison for sex crimes against children; instead, he would serve 13 months in a county jail with special privileges, such as going to his office six days a week.
Living Media Ethics has a chapter on latent triggers that influence perception, such as upbringing, social standing, personal and generational experiences and education. The chapter also explicates words and phrases like “underage women,” indicating personal bias and tainting the news.
Such phrases often involve social mores, or what a society believes to be true in a certain point in time in a given culture. Applied to the Epstein case, some segments may find it difficult to believe that a successful financier–as depicted in file photos–can commit lurid crimes involving the enticement and recruitment of girls to engage in illicit sex acts.
In the days following reports about Acosta and Epstein, sexual assault survivors have used social media to inform journalists about bias. In a report by USA Today, titled “Has the media ‘sanitized’ the accusations against Jeffrey Epstein?,” the newspaper notes: “The media has been blasted for using terms such as “underage women” instead of “children,” for saying “sex with minors” instead of “rape,” for using the phrase “paid for sex,” which they say erases coercion.”
It is incumbent upon journalists to read indictments carefully, download or access photos that suit the occasion or crime, be sensitive to how reports affect survivors, and correct language that slants the story or indicates personal or social bias.