Why Matter’s Story About Pedophilia Included a Graphic Account of Abuse
The first time I opened Luke Malone’s story about young, non-offending pedophiles who formed an online support group, I read two paragraphs, clicked close, and turned off my computer.
The second time I opened the file, I read the first page, and then clicked close again.
The third time, I made it all the way through and found an early version of what many people read this week: a compassionate, empathetic, serious, rigorous, often shocking, sometimes sickening, always deeply upsetting, and achingly human work of journalism.
It offered a novel, mind-bending look at one issue on which we all thought we agreed: Pedophiles are all monsters, all abusers, all unrepentant, all beyond hope and treatment. It was the result of years of reporting—reporting that first took shape as Luke’s Master’s thesis for the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, then transformed into a harrowing and heartbreaking episode of This American Life, and now has become Matter’s most-read and most-discussed story to date.
Luke and I worked on the story for nine months, on and off, but there was one editorial decision we didn’t make until the day before we published it: whether or not to include its most graphic details (and where to put them if we did). Adam, the story’s main character, was addicted to child pornography from ages 14 to 16—until he downloaded a video that depicted the abuse of a toddler so brutal, so offensive, so shattering, that watching it made him vow to never abuse a child and to somehow seek help for his disorder. (Which, eventually, led him to find a way to help other teens like him never abuse children.)
Originally, the details of that video appeared in the second paragraph of the entire story. As Matter’s executive editor, Mike Benoist, wrote me last week, their appearance so early on “really feels gross to me. Snuffy. It’s not that I have a weak stomach. I just think it’s wrong.” He argued that there in the lede, the contents of the video lacked any context; their only value was shock value; their only effect was assaultive. I fought him at first (at which point Mike described my reasoning as “bullshit”) but he was right. It was why, when I’d first encountered the story, I kept opening the document and immediately closing it again. So what exactly Adam saw in that video now appears much deeper into the story and shows up only after you better understand his disorder and his struggle against it. A reader experiences the video as he must have—with fury and repulsion, and as a motivation for profound change.
Some readers have argued that we shouldn’t have included the details at all, that we should have merely alluded to them, or that at the very least we should have bracketed them off with a trigger warning. Luke touched on his own thinking about warnings in an interview with The Awl this week. And it’s worth pointing out that This American Life made the choice to include a warning and not include the graphic details — out of respect for listeners who’d suffered abuse in their past — and there is a kindness in that decision that I respect.
One reader emailed us:
“Of course I know that child pornography exists and is rampant, and I believe that journalists are obligated to shine a light on the terrible sides of human nature, but reading the description of the little boy’s terrified reaction to his abuser and assuming that there is no one to help or protect him is profoundly disturbing. This portion of the content has overshadowed the legitimate broader issue of preventing sexual abuse of children.”
The goal of this story is to make people realize that pedophiles can potentially be treated—that sexual abuse can be prevented, and not merely punished afterward—and so I hope, I desperately hope, that the details of the video don’t obscure that argument. In the end, my decision was informed in no small part by the fact that I’m the father of a toddler not much older than the child in the video. And I kept thinking: We don’t know what happened to that boy; we don’t know how old he is now; we don’t know if he’s alive and safe, or if he was killed by his abuser, of if he’s still being abused somewhere. Those of us at our computers or on phones aren’t entitled to the protection of propriety or politeness; we shouldn’t be shielded by omission; we shouldn’t be sheltered by some vague phrase like “a video of unimaginable horror” because we’d never imagine just how horrible it really was. We can only read what was done to him, and realize—as Adam did—that it happened to an actual child. We can only read what was done to him, and be destroyed by it.
Some stories should ruin your afternoon, the rest of your day, your whole week. This is one of them.