minority reports

Context is crucial covering the Boy Scouts

Mentions of pedophilia fears in stories about potential gay scout leaders should be accompanied by information debunking them
February 1, 2013

One of the most pernicious stereotypes about gay men is that any one of them might be a pedophile. As more Americans have gotten to know the gay community, this fear has started to subside. But it raised its ugly head this week in stories about a potential change in Boy Scout policy.

On Monday, the Boy Scouts of America released a statement saying they were considering ending the national ban on gay membership in the Scouts. The organization would leave it up to local councils and sponsoring groups as to whether troops would allow openly gay boys to be members and gay and lesbian adults to be troop leaders.

I wrote about this Boy Scout policy in October, back when a teen who had earned the rank of Eagle Scout was denied the honor because he had come out as gay. In that column, I wrote about how important it is to add context when covering stories that seemed to be retreading old ground.

None of the stories I read at the time mentioned pedophilia, because that story was about a gay child. But the latest Boy Scouts development is about the possibility of openly gay adults leading troops, so the specter of pedophilia appeared. (Openly gay adults have led troops in the past, but they have been dismissed when the national organization learned about them). And since it has appeared, it needs to be debunked.

Fox News twice linked gay men with pedophilia in stories on the Boy Scouts, as the progressive activist group Media Matters for America pointed out. In one, Fox reporter Doug McKelway said, “Others say, and I’m sure we’ll hear a lot of this in the coming days, a lot of people who don’t want their kids to go camping out deep in to the woods for days on end with guys who are avowed, open gays.”

In the second, he says the impending change for some “traditional values” families is “deeply disturbing” and later mentions that “following literally hundreds of incidents of predation by pedophiles, the Scouts adopted a policy whereby one-on-one contact between adults and scouts is prohibited.”

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Nowhere does McKelway say that gay men are just as unlikely as straight men to be pedophiles, which is the case. In just one instance invalidating the link between gay men and pedophilia, Dr. Gregory Herek, a psychology professor who studies sexual orientation, prejudice, and science at University of California Davis, writes:

The mainstream view among researchers and professionals who work in the area of child sexual abuse is that homosexual and bisexual men do not pose any special threat to children. This well known lack of a linkage between homosexuality and child molestation accounts for why relatively little research has directly addressed the issue. Proving something we already know simply isn’t a priority.

Yet pedophilia keeps coming up. In a blog post in the online magazine Salon, Katie McDonough put up a video in which a spokesperson for the American Family Association describes his horror at learning of the Scout’s impending decision. The entirety of her accompanying text is this:

Bryan Fischer, director of Issues Analysis for the American Family Association and famous kidnapping enthusiast, warns that if the Boy Scouts of America lift their decades-long ban on gay membership, pedophiles will soon be “bunking down with your kid at jamboree.”

“This is just unbelievable to me. This is a suicide mission on the part of the Boy Scouts. They’re done. They’re toast. They’re history,” he said. Adding, “We know that homosexuals offend against children at roughly ten times the rate that heterosexuals offend against young children. There is a risk there — it’s just insanity that they are relaxing the standard.”

Because the tone is slightly snarky and it appears at the fairly liberal Salon, I suppose it’s implied that McDonough doesn’t agree with Fischer. But she doesn’t say so and instead lets a harmful factual inaccuracy — that gay men are 10 times more likely to molest children than straight men — stand without comment.

The Washington Post‘s She The People blog does something similar. Freelance journalist Diana Reese’s piece does a fairly balanced job of reporting on the feelings of parents of Scouts in reaction to the proposed lifting of the ban. But then there’s this:

Not every parent liked the idea of a change in policy, however. “I lost my ability to advance in scouting as a young man because of a scoutmaster who was a pedophile,” one dad wrote me in an email. “I am dead set against gays in scouting.”

One mom, who prefaced her remarks with the belief that homosexuality does not equal pedophilia, still admitted she would worry about the safety of the boys.

“Most of BSA’s constituent parents view this as a safety issue more than a moral issue,” another dad wrote in an email.

But this is not a safety issue. It’s about prejudice. When people say that they are worried about putting gay men in leadership positions because children might be harmed by pedophilia, what they are really saying is that gay men make them uncomfortable, and they believe gay men to be perverted and deviant. Happily, most Americans no longer think this way, but the media still needs to pierce the illusions of those who do. When something is wrong, we need to explicitly say so.

I don’t think it’s bad for reporters to bring up pedophilia when writing about gay men and the Boy Scouts if parents bring it up on their own as a worry. But it is important to recognize that being concerned about gay men leading children in the scouts because of prospective pedophilia is an unfounded fear. Instead of further scaring our readers, we should inform them — with facts.

Jennifer Vanasco is a is a news editor at WNYC and the former editor in chief of MTV Network’s LGBT news site 365gay.com. She writes about social minorities, national politics, and culture. Her award-winning newspaper column on gay and women’s issues ran for 15 years.