Oral sex story stirs debate

By: David Noack

Post article meant as a wake-up call for parents

Afront-page story about middle-school students having oral sex was meant by The Washington Post to be a wake-up call for parents about the kinds of sexual activities kids are getting involved in these days.
But the article did more than simply
set off alarm bells among parents
about younger teens engaging in sexual experimentation: It also led to the paper receiving a number of e-mail messages and telephone calls ? both criticizing and praising the story. The detractors raised questions about the need for the story, objected to the headline, asked whether there was any real news
in the article and why it appeared on the front page.
The headline ? “Parents Are Alarmed by an Unsettling New Fad in Middle Schools: Oral Sex” ? was sure to be an attention-grabber.
Tucked below the fold in the July 8 issue of the Post, reporter Laura Sessions Stepp told about girls and boys at the Willamsburg Middle School in Arlington, Va., who are engaging in off-campus oral sex at friends’ homes and elsewhere as kind of a halfway measure between going all the way and abstinence.
“I frankly see this as a good thing because I think there is a lot of superstition, myth, and just ? a lack of knowledge on the part of most people about sexual behaviors. And who are the most vulnerable? Our children. In the research that I did, I learned [things] about the transmission of viruses that I didn’t know, and I have a 15-year-old. We need to have a discussion about these behaviors, just as we did with AIDS, so that we have the right information and can give our kids the right information,” says Stepp.
And Bob Steele, who teaches media ethics at the Poynter Institute, based in St. Petersburg, Fla., lauded the Post for running the story.
“I think when we’re talking about a societal issue dealing with health and we’re dealing with issues of values, that that’s very important information and very appropriate for newspapers to write about. ? Journalism’s job is to shine the light of scrutiny on important topics and issues, and that seems to me to be an appropriate focus here,” says Steele.
Before the story ran, Post editors debated the tone, words, and placement of the story. For the Post, as for all papers, Page One is prime real estate, and some editors say the story was akin to a “public service” in letting parents know what their kids may be doing.
The article quotes school officials, counselors, nurses, and authors, as well as unnamed teens describing what happens at parties. A sidebar also appeared in the “Style Plus” section about why there are no studies on this issue and where to find additional information on teen sexuality.
Special reports editor Marc Fisher, who assigned the story, says there was a range of opinions expressed by staffers, but one of the key ones was how the subject would be handled on Page One.
“Most of the questions surrounded how explicit we wanted to be on the front page, as opposed to whether we should do the story. Then there was a question about whether we wanted to be straightforward in the headline or not, and, eventually, I think there was a consensus that, if you’re going to tell a story like this, you need to be specific so people know what you’re talking about,” says Fisher.
He says the paper reported an important story in as tasteful a manner as possible.
“We felt that it was such a compelling story, and so well-reported, that it was going to be as startling and important as anything on that page that day. We played it very conservatively on the page. But we knew it was a well-done, well-written story that really spoke to how kids live today, and that’s the kind of piece that should be on the front page,” says Fisher.
He says what made the story a “talker” was the age of the students, 12- and 13-year-olds engaging in this kind of sexual activity.
David Carr, editor of the Washington City Paper, a local weekly alternative, says he was surprised that Post editors did not know that the reporter’s son had attended the school mentioned in the article. He says the editors should have known and disclosed that in the story.
Stepp says that Peggy Hackman, the paper’s “Style Plus” editor, knew that her son had attended the school.
Speaking of the paper’s front-page treatment, Carr adds, “I didn’t think it was merited by this weave of anecdotal, soccer-mom franticness. It didn’t seem to me to meet the general criteria of a Page One story in the Post. I think it might have been a decent story in ‘Style.’ ? I think that when you put it in that size type and on your front page that people should reliably believe that something important is afoot. I don’t think that was the case.”
Mary Hadar, assistant managing editor for front-page features, says the age angle was the news peg for the story.
“I think after substantially more reporting, she [Stepp] had nailed it. She had gotten enough people who are in a position to know to say that they have sensed this shift over the last few years,” says Hadar.
?(Editor & Publisher Web Site:http:www.mediainfo.com) [Caption]
?(copyright: Editor & Publisher July 24, 1999) [Caption]

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