Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Rural Sexual Abuse - Anchorage Daily News coverage v. Tony Hopfinger's Newsweek coverage

The Anchorage Daily News had a front page story today on sexual abuse in rural Alaska. It gives no context at all. If I were relatively new to Alaska, or just uninformed about rural Alaska, I might conclude, from this story, that Alaska Natives are nothing but sex abusers. We get statements, undoubtedly true, but without context, such as:

Ground zero is the Bethel region, where troopers investigated 17 percent of the cases, more than any other post in the state, TePas said.

"We have an epidemic," she said. "It's a statewide epidemic, but the epicenter, our data shows, is the Bethel region."
The early figures paint a disturbing picture of rapes and other sexual violence against adults and children in Western Alaska, where the population is largely Alaska Native and villages are often loose extensions of family.
In all the 989 cases, family members and friends sexually abuse or assault each other in more than 90 percent of the incidents, she said.

While the ADN chose to run a Tundra Drums piece which just gives statistics but no discussion of the context on today's first page, to my knowledge, they have not given any coverage to Alaska writer Tony Hopfinger's in depth Newsweek article mentioned last week by Alaskan Abroad on the multi-million dollar settlement of sexual abuse cases by the Roman Catholic Priests in the Yupik community of St. Michael. [January 23: They did run a good piece on the settlement in November by Lisa Demer.]

I can't give you a precise account of why the sexual abuse levels are so high in Western Alaska. There are probably multiple causes. Alaska Natives being inherently evil is NOT one of them. Tony's other article on Wales that I mentioned in two previous posts gives a lot of context into why a young man in that community might commit suicide. All the issues he raises in that article might help us understand what is happening in Western Alaska. Alcohol is clearly a factor. But the St. Michael's article also suggests that perhaps the church[es] helped cause some of the sexual abuse problems in these villages. In St. Michael's the abuse, according to the article, was extensive - one specific priest had about 60 victims. We know that people who were abused are more likely than others to become abusers, though, as this article from the National Criminal Justice Reference Service suggests, it is not inevitable and it is far more complex than a simple correlation.

It would be nice to see the ADN do a more careful job of reporting about rural Alaska. The Tundra Drums, according to the Alaska Newspapers, Inc website,

is an independent newspaper dedicated to being the definitive informational medium for the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta and is published weekly by Alaska Newspapers, Inc.
Its audience is in rural Alaska. They have a better understanding of the context than people in Anchorage and other places in Alaska where the ADN is read. You can't just take such an article and drop it onto the front page without some background.

It is important that the problems of rural Alaska be covered by the ADN, but raw data without context may do more harm to urban-rural understanding than no coverage at all.


  1. I was going to rant about this very thing but you are much better! It infuriated me because I read it and was left with more questions than answers.

    Now I suppose I have to go back to figuring out my art. . .

  2. 1. The ADN has pulled the article - at least from the link you provide.

    2. The Alaska Report's new media blog is carrying your story on this.

  3. News and news coverage about rural Alaska is problematic, whether published in Anchorage or Bethel. Much of the "statistics" are not questioned; are these genuine numbers? what context were they collected? etc. It is too easy in this state (and in other states and countries) to tsk, tsk about abuse and then blame it on genetics (race) or history.

    ADN is lazy in their coverage. One year we had one reporter, who couldn't cover local news because he was switched to cover the Iditarod.

    Bethel papers usually concentrate on "cute" ethnic photos. Tundra Drums is owned by Calista. The current reporter is based in Anchorage. He tries to get information, but he is in Anchorage and works for a publisher which has a rocky relationship with their journalists.

    The public radio news is interested in what friends and family do, at the expense even of covering city council meetings. The reporters don't have good enough journalistic training. They have difficulty covering anything that might lead to decisions against their preferences.

    But to be fair, many people prefer not to know. Others work hard to hide actual information (either because they have lots to hide or because being stingy with information is the post-colonial way to stay empowered). Main media focus on Juneau (actually, Anchorage politicos) in trouble but when was the last focus on corruption in non-Anchorage, i.e., rural corruption? (other than Hohman)

    How many news media followed up on tips from rural areas, trying to get a little fresh air and light, a little outside assistance? Given that most of rural Alaska now lives in Anchorage and then Fairbanks, why isn't their hometown news in the ADN? [why don't all state agencies and the congressional delegation have 800 numbers?]

    Keep us ignorant and shy around authority figures. [but it really isn't an insurmountable problem if anyone wants to overcome 50 reasons not to change]

  4. Tea, stop using blogs to avoid your schoolwork.

    Phil, Thanks for the heads up. I found another link that still works.

    MPB, Thanks for the thoughtful comments. Unlike some businesses that I no longer give the benefit of the doubt to, I do think the ADN would like to do a good job. But they seem to think that their canoe is approaching a giant waterfall in the near future and they're working in survival mode, along with most other newspapers.

    Maybe the community does need to work with them to figure out how we will continue to get local and state news if and when print newspapers go over the falls. If their outreach to community bloggers hadn't been accompanied by such heavy handed terms of agreement, I might have agreed to try it out.

    Maybe blogs and other things will evolve into important additional sources of information and challenges to the status quo.

    I'd like them to feel my comments are friendly chiding intended to make them better. We all have a stake in a vibrant free press.

    To that end you obviously have a view of things that adds important insights into this. I hope you share more of those insights here in the future. Thanks.

  5. Another intersting point . . . the writer of the Tundra Drums piece used to be the ADN's rural reporter. I don't know if they've replaced him, although I'm assuming no.


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