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Censuring the Media's Censure Coverage of SD Senator-Page Scandal

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On Wednesday the South Dakota State Senate voted 32-2 to censure Democratic Senator Dan Sutton, in the wake of allegations that Sutton groped a male page in a hotel room in 2006. While the charges are disturbing in and of themselves, the media's coverage of the scandal—not surprisingly—tended to sensationalize this already sensationalistic case.

In particular, the media's framing of the alleged victim as a "teen"—frequently in news headlines—gave the story an even more lurid frame than was perhaps appropriate. To most minds, a "teen" or "teenager" usually connotes a minor in their junior high or high school years. In this case, the alleged victim was an adult—18 years old—when the incident is claimed to have taken place last year.

Admittedly, if the allegations are true—that Sutton slept in the same bed with the page and fondled him—the fact that the page was an adult is not much of a mitigating factor (given the Senate-page power structure of the relationship as well as the fact that the alleged act was not consensual and that Sutton is also married).

Still, in light of Mark Foley's U.S. House page scandal last year that did involve minors, references to the alleged victim in the South Dakota case as a "teen" is purposefully introduced to drive the reader to assume the worst - that Sutton was sexually abusing a child. Here are some recent headlines and coverage of the case:

"Lawmaker: Nothing Wrong with Sharing Bed with Teen." (Philadelphia Daily News, 1/25/07)

"S.D. Teen Accuses Senator of Fondling." (Associated Press, 1/24/07)

"Lawmaker Censured for Sharing a Bed with Teen Page." (WTLV, WJXX Jacksonville, Florida, 1/31/07)

"Members of the South Dakota Senate voted to condemn Sen. Dan Sutton (D-Flandreau) for allegations that he behaved inappropriately with a teenage legislative page." (Minnesota Public Radio, 1/31/07)

"The man who's in the spotlight of a senate hearing was on the hot seat Wednesday night, testifying he didn't see anything wrong with sharing a motel room bed with a teenage page." (KELO-TV, 1/24/07)

"Sutton has denied an allegation of sexual misconduct with a teen Senate page last year." (Argus Leader, 1/18/07)

An earlier attempt by Senate Republicans to expel Sutton from the legislative body failed 20-14, with all 14 votes cast by Republicans. Six Republicans and all 14 Democrats voted against expelling Sutton. The two votes against censure came from two Republicans who had voted to expel him.

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