NPR Doubles Down on Moral Panic (The Remix), ft. a Journalist Who Doesn't Handle Criticism Well

Two weeks ago, NPR ran a print and audio story about people with past sex offense convictions that was so poorly researched and interrogated that I felt compelled to write a lengthy response to the article’s many problems. You can read that article (which contains a link to her reporting) here.

I had reached out (politely) on Twitter to ask the journalist, Cheryl Thompson, for a response to the criticisms I raised about her reporting, such as why she felt it was appropriate to disclose the HIV/AIDS status of one of her story’s subjects when it had no relevance at all to the story. Thompson, to her credit, did respond to my criticism. Her response below:

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So when I saw that part 2 of her story dropped today on NPR’s Morning Edition, I was anticipating more of the same and — dear reader — Thompson delivered.

The new piece suffers from the same lack of any kind of journalistic skepticism that the first piece has: namely, asking whether any of the myriad rules and regulations associated with sex offense registries have any kind of nexus with public safety. Thompson also conflates failing to register or non-compliance with “fleeing,” which is problematic. Here, for example, his how her new spot begins:

When authorities don’t aggressively pursue sex offenders who flee who they often move undetected, sometimes across state lines, and commit additional sex crimes.

Words like “flee” and “abscond” have specific connotations, that rarely match the mental state of the person who isn’t compliant. Thompson’s own reporting demonstrates this fact in her prior piece on Mr. Lang, who was apparently “fleeing” but also agreed to be interviewed by an NPR reporter and photographed for the story. Instead of trying to evade law enforcement, most people who are compelled to comply with these hyper-technical and complex laws are simply trying to live law-abiding and productive lives.

The framing of the spot also seems to insinuate that the discontinuation of in-person registration in light of the pandemic undermines public safety when guidance from experts suggests that in-person registration should be suspended in light of the pandemic given that it has a de minimis impact on public safety:

This spot then explores two cases of sexual violence — but it’s clear that registries would have made zero difference in either of the cases that Thompson deploys. The first story, that of Ms. Trogler, is undeniably tragic and painful. Thompson used Trogler’s story in her piece two weeks ago, and as I pointed out then, it isn’t clear how a registry would have made a difference in her case since her abuser was not on one.

There is clear and evident pain that Trogler continues to experience, and lament that her abuser was not punished more severely. To be sure, that’s an understandable and common expression from many survivors of sexual violence. But it’s not clear what more severe punishment actually does, either for survivors, for rates of sexual violence, or for our systems of punishment writ large. Indeed, I recently wrote about those complicated relationships — and why more severe punishment paradoxically undermines the things that many survivors say that they want.

The story then explores the story of another family — the Crosby family — but here, too, a registry wouldn’t have made a difference at all. Their story is Mr. Crosby leaves prison for a sex offense, and begins to date but doesn’t disclose to his paramour why he was in prison. His significant other finds out about the truth about his criminal past when a PO shows up at their home, per Thompson’s reporting.

And…they get married after he comes clean. They have a child together. They move. He doesn’t register as a sex offender after the move, flouting the rules. He is subsequently prosecuted and convicted for sexually abusing his paramour’s daughter from a prior relationship.

To be sure, it’s a terrible crime — just as the harm visited on Trogler is terrible as well. But it’s not clear how compliance with the registry would have altered the outcome. The abuse was within the family (as a good percentage of abuse is) and Mrs. Crosby was well aware of his past, whether he was on a registry or not. He was not “fleeing,” but rather was established within the community. There is no nexus between the atrocious crime that Mr. Crosby committed that the point that Thompson is trying to make: that if only he had complied with the registry that this crime would have been averted. All she had to do was ask the question I’m asking here, and her entire piece falls apart. Once again.

Holding people accountable for sexual harm, and preventing new sexual harm, are goals of paramount importance in our society. Registries invite an understanding of sexual harm that is out of step with reality. They invite the public to conceive of that harm of something that takes place in park bushes, and carried out by strangers. They declare as “safe” those spaces where sexual violence is actually most likely to occur, carried out by people we know, we trust, and sometimes love. Critical feminist scholars have written much about how this mis-framing perpetuates sexual violence in our society, not that Thompson would necessarily care to read them, or even know of their existence.

Indeed, she will never see this, or my tweeting about it since she blocked me for asking her (once, politely) for a response. But at least I feel better having said it: the reporting is bad, and it’s astonishing that this is what NPR is producing.