‘Sexting’ and Broadcast Media:
How Sexting Among Minors is Portrayed on Television
In today’s mediascape technology is evolving at an unprecedented rate. In the digital era media convergence has become common practice with new media devices emerging everyday that combine existing technologies into single mobile media stations. Mobile phones now allow users to engage in multiple media practices all with the click of a button. One can send a text, surf the web, watch a movie, listen to music and even take photos, all while only engaging with a single device. While there are many advantages to convergent technologies, such power may also lead to undoubtedly questionable behaviours. One such behaviour is the recent phenomenon of ‘sexting’. ‘Sexting’ refers to the act of taking semi-nude or nude photos of one’s self with a smartphone and sending these photos via text to friends or lovers (Day, 2010). This action when undertaken by adults may be seen as unfavourable but is well within their rights, however when minors engage in the same practices they are classified by law as child pornographers and are liable to face criminal charges if convicted (Richards & Calvert, 2009 – 2010).
A study completed in 2010 by the Kaiser Family Foundation indicated that in the last 5 years mobile phones among children (8 – 18 years old) has increased by almost 40 precent, with 66 precent of children now owners of mobile phones. Among this group 83 precent of teens aged 17 owned there own mobile devices, up 64 precent since 2004 (Chalfen, 2010). These numbers clearly identify a trend towards teens that are able to engage directly with one another through the use of mobile phones without the intervention of parents or authority figures. Furthermore, texting amongst teens has become a dominant form of communication, with the average teen sending 2,272 text messages a month (Ostrager, 2010). Text messages may also include photos if the phone is equipped with a camera and the users plan allows teens to send multimedia messages. This combination of supervision free communication, mobile devices able to send photo messages, and teen hormonal dating practices, has led to the social phenomenon known as ‘sexting’.
This paper, through a thematic analysis of broadcast news, seeks to identify the ways in which television media frame the topic of sexting. To begin this paper will examine the scholarly literature to date surrounding sexting. A general background of the ‘sexting’ phenomenon will provide a basic understanding of this media phenomenon and will explain how the term ‘sexting’ has evolved and why teens may choose to ‘sext’. Secondly, the literature review will analyse the legal concerns surrounding ‘sexting’ and why current legislation is inadequate in dealing with ‘sexting’ offenders. It will identify the societal trends that influence teen’s decisions to ‘sext’. Finally the literature review will address the media framing of ‘sexting’ and what consequences this may have on societies understanding of this social phenomenon. The second section will address the media research aspect of this paper. It will describe the sample chosen for the purpose of this research. A description of the theoretical framework as well as the methodology used will define how the research for this paper was conducted. This will be followed by an in depth analysis of the media sample and will define the over all findings for each television station used in this research as well as the comparative results. Finally this paper will address any implications of the research and will stress any weaknesses.
The phenomenon of ‘sexting’
‘Sexting’, which is a contraction of ‘sex’ and ‘texting’, is becoming more and more common among adolescents (Chalfen, 2010). Albury, Funnell, and Noonan (2010) discuss how the term ‘sexting’ was originally used for communications via cell phone to arrange sexual meetings. The term then evolved to include sexually explicit texts, which finally, with the advancements in technologies evolved into its current form, relating to visually erotic picture texts.
In a commonly cited study conducted by ‘The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy’, it was found that almost 20 precent of teens had engaged in some form of ‘sexting’, whether as recipients or senders (Calvert, 2009-2010; Landis, 2010). In the majority of cases ‘sexting’ is used as a ‘fun or flirtatious’ present to a boyfriend or girlfriend, or to begin a courtship (Albury et al., 2010; Brown, Keller & Stern, 2009; Chalfen, 2009; Day, 2010). Scholars agree that when kept private between the two initial participants ‘sexting’ equates to little more than adolescent dating rituals similar to those before the digital age. Chalfen (2009) explains that such sexual exploration is not a new phenomenon. He argues that during the era of Polaroids teens where already able to instantly exchange sexual photographs in the same manner, however with the infinite possibilities of the Internet in todays mediascape, teens have become much more susceptible to unintended consequences. Where once a photo would need to be physically copied and distributed taking time and money, now with the click of a button the same picture can reach hundreds of recipients in seconds (Day, 2010). Albury et al. (2010) also note that the action of ‘sexting’ within itself does not necessarily constitute a dangerous practice, as teens have long pushed the limits of their sexual boundaries. The problem as understood by Albury et al. (2010) along with most scholars is what occurs when the pictures are either forwarded on or uploaded to the web (Brown et al., 2009; Calvert, 2010; Chalfen, 2009, 2010). Such actions may result in varied consequence for the victim, from bullying and becoming social outcasts, to serious legal charges.
Shah (2009) along with Ostrager (2010) explains the biological reasons that teens do not comprehend the consequences of their action. Medical studies have shown that the frontal cortex of the brain does not fully develop until well into peoples 20s. This is the part of the brain that is used for “high level reasoning and decision-making” (Ostrager, 2010, p.717). These findings appear to coincide with the results of the ‘The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy’ (2008) study, that show 60-66% of teens describe their reasons for sending suggestive content to someone else as “flirty,” but 75% also say sending sexually suggestive content can have serious negative consequences.
Legality of ‘Sexting’
There is a consensus among legal scholars debating the current laws governing child pornography and ‘sexting’ that the punishment for ‘sexting’ offenders is clearly disproportionate to the crimes being committed (Calvert, 2009-2010; Leary, 2009-2010; Ostrager, 2010; Ryan, 2010; Shah, 2010). The ‘Prosecutorial Remedies and Other Tools to End the Exploitation of Children Today Act’ passed in 2003, prevents the creation of any computer generated child pornographic images or pictures that depict children in an obscene manner (Ostrager, 2010). While the exact punishment may differ from state to state, all 50 states considered the creation, distribution and possession of child pornography as illegal (Ostrager, 2010). ‘Sexting’ is currently dealt with under such laws and the punishments extended to offenders can range in severity from group counselling sessions, to jail time served and the requirement of registering as a sex offender (Barkcas & Barkacs, 2010; Chalfen, 2009; Leary, 2009-2010). Although the law was originally intended to protect minors from being exploited in such a manner as may cause physiological damage, the current statutes have not yet caught up with advancements in technologies and therefore have yet to address specifically the practice of ‘sexting’, leaving teens at risk (Shah, 2010). Albury et al. (2010) point out that the current laws simultaneously frame teens as both the victim and the perpetrators. In effect the laws that identify them as victims are also turning them into criminals because they are the creators and distributors of the images that under current law are classified as child pornography.
The issue raised by prosecuting minors under child pornography laws for sexting stems from the actual intent of the sext (Leary, 2010; Shah, 2010). A second issue relates to the punishment itself. Under current law minors may be required to register as sex offenders, in some cases until the age of 43. By requiring such actions Shah (2010) argues that it will be harder to track the ‘real’ sex offenders and would cost substantially more money to maintain the sex offenders list. Other scholars argue that the punishment damages the minor’s future opportunities in life due to the severity of the punishment (day, 2010). The consequences of such punishments also bring to question the lasting effects they may have on rehabilitating the offenders.
The common understanding of sexting among legal scholars offers three different instances in which someone may be classified as a ‘sexting’ offender (Leary, 2009- 2010; Ostrager, 2010; Ryan, 2010). The first occurs when a boy or girl friend send one another a sext. In this case the action is consensual and the image is received from a primary source (the image creator) (Ryan, 2010). The second instance is the forwarding on of images received previously by the image creator (original sexter). This creates a secondary source for the image, as it was forwarded not by the creator but instead by the receiver. The third instance where one may be classified as a ‘sexter‘ is being the unintended recipient of a sext and failing to delete the image from the phone (Ryan, 2010). Under current laws both the sender and receiver of a sext are engaging in the creation, distribution or possession of child pornography. Similarly if the message is then forwarded on to other parties that person is not treated any different than the original creator (Ostrager, 2010). Scholars debate the matter of reforming criminal punishment in varying manners.
Ostrager attempts to provide a solution by proposing a “three tiered system of classifying and disciplining teenage sexters” (2010, p.713). Under this system each case would be addressed as a separate type of offense and therefore prosecuted differently. Day (2010) identifies the phenomenon of ‘sexting’ as a parental issue and would seek to have parents be liable for damages caused by their children’s actions. Ryan’s (2010) solution discusses preventative measures that could be put in place to address the issue before it occurs. Calvert (2010) offers yet another approach, advising that only secondary and non-volitional sexts should be chargeable by law. What is common through out the literature surrounding the legalities of ‘sexting’, is the understanding that today’s laws are grossly inadequate for dealing with the social trend of ‘sexting’.
State intervention is another solution posed by certain scholars (Leary, 2009-2010; Ryan, 2010). The question raised asks whether the state should intervene in sexting cases, and if so how much? Ryan (2010) proposes educational programs implemented by the government would help address the core issues of sexting. Ryan analyses the Jessica Logan case and how her ex-boyfriend forwarded her primary sext on in a secondary manner to others, and that she had no outlet for which to contact to deal with the matter. Ryan describes how Jessica contacted the School Resource office about the incident and was advised “there was ‘nothing he could do’ because ‘there was no law to protect her since she was eighteen years old, and sent the photo under her own volition’” (Ryan, 2010, p.376). Logan subsequently committed suicide due to the emotional harm caused to her; this identifies the seriousness of the ‘sexting’ phenomenon’s repercussions. Ryan therefore argues for state instituted programs and offices that would be able to offer assistance with future cases, similar to that of Logan. Leary (2009-2010) similarly discusses a multidisciplinary response to ‘sexting’; citing the need for educational institutions, to educate communities, law enforcement, parents and children about the dangers of sexting. Shah (2010) and Barkacs & Barkacs (2010) offer yet another solution, both suggesting to pass a federal bill that would create a uniform punishment across the states. Both papers argue that punishments in the various states are too widely varied for a problem that is gaining in commonality and propose a united solution for all states. The solutions discussed above by the various scholars relating to both preventative and punitive actions all attempt to simultaneously separate ‘sexting’ from the current child pornography laws while offering valid solutions under which offenders may be dealt with. The over all debate of ‘sexting’ frames the action as a negative social trend that has serious consequences for minors when misused.
There are two main points of discussion when discussing the social factors of ‘Sexting’. The first tries to identify what influences are present in today’s mediascape that are informing the judgements of teens to engage in sexting. Some scholars (Calvert, 2009-2010; Papacharissi & Mendelson, 2007; Chalfen, 2010) hypothesize that today’s exhibitionist culture as seen though reality television, talk shows, celebrity entertainment shows, as well as magazines and advertisements is responsible for instilling lower values in teens. Calvert cites a 2008 Vanity Fare photo shoot in which the then fifteen-year-old Miley Cyrus, a famous pop star, was depicted naked from the waist up. Shortly after the Vanity Fair controversy Miley Cyrus was identified in her own ‘sexting’ scandal in which pictures the pop star had sent to her then boyfriend wound up on the Internet. Calvert (2009-2010, p.12) explains “When young teen girls sext racy images… they may simply be imitating their celebrity role models”. Chalfen (2009) identifies four social trends that are crucial to the increase in youngsters ‘sexting’, one of which, similarly recognises today’s Media Culture as prevalent to the issue. Chalfen argues that public imagery today is more explicit and sexualised then ever and this in turn effects the way teens interpret their surroundings. Furthermore, while Brown et al. (2009) research focuses more on the internet and social networking sites (SNS) and their role in teen sexting, their article also identifies the sexually saturated mediascape as a critical part in shaping teens views of sexual representation. Examples of young woman achieving celebrity status due to sexually explicit portrayals are becoming ever more common. One only needs look as far as Kim Kardashian, a reality superstar (who first became famous due to sex tapes that surfaced over the internet of her and hip-hop icon Ray J.), to wonder whether such success motivates young teens?
The second issue identified explores the role of the internet, Social Networking Sites (SNS) and the transparent culture which requires people to divulge all personal information in the hope of receiving a few more ‘friend requests’ (Brown et al., 2009; Chalfen 2009, 2010). Brown et al. (2009) explain how the internet allows teens to express themselves sexually online through such practices as creating SNS profiles, posting stories of their sexual desires on blogs, or exchanging nude or semi-nude photos of themselves either via the internet or mobile phones. They argue that while this may provide a safer environment for psychological exploration there are real dangers that may occur. These include consequences as varied as victimization by either cyberbullying or online predators, or the potential harm for future job or college applications. Chalfen (2009) notes that the youth of today, to a greater extent then ever live their lives online. It is easier then ever for people to upload photos of themselves to sites such as Facebook, Myspace, Flickr and other similar sites. Chalfen argues that such social trends have blurred the lines between the public and private. This intern shapes how teens understand the importance of such realms and results in the ‘intersection of poor teen judgment, sex and technology’ (Tuteur cited in Chalfen, 2009). The social influences mentioned above offer a strong argument for associating today’s image saturation in the media and transparent online trends with ‘sexting’ practices of today’s youth.
Portrayal of ‘Sexting’ in the Media
The topic of ‘sexting’ has been raised in all areas of the media, from Law and Order SVU, entertainment news programs, to newspaper and magazines articles (Albury et al., 2010; Calvert, 2010; Chalfen, 2009; Richards & Calvert, 2009-2010). The common understanding amongst scholars suggested that the media attention given to ‘sexting’ personifies the sensationalization of today’s media and has created a moral panic, perhaps disproportionate to the size of the ‘crisis’. Albury et al. (2010) explain how the media’s attention was first attracted in 2008 to ‘sexting’ after the suicide of Jessica Logan. The following year six teenagers in Pennsylvania were threatened with child pornography charges after it was discovered that three underage girls had ‘sexted’ three male classmates ‘provocative’ pictures of themselves. Albury et al. (2010) argue that this solidified the media’s interest in ‘sexting’ not as an isolated incident but a social crisis. Chalfen (2010, p351) quotes Lenhart who observed how the popular media have focused its attention on ‘sexting’ as a form “of relationship currency… and they are also passed along to friends for their entertainment value, as jokes or for fun”. The media have used the unfortunate instances of images being passed on by the receiver either via cell phone or the Internet to create moral panic (Chalfen, 2010). Calvert (2009-2010) argues that the widely cited statistics of the The National Campaign’s sexting survey created a media frenzy around the issue. Calvert (2009-2010) describes how The New York Times, USA Today, Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal all covered ‘sexting’ in one form or another, with some even running front page articles. Furthermore, feature programs were televised on CBS, ABC and NBC along with radio programs devoted to the topic. All of which discussed the consequences of ‘sexting’ and the rampant examples of misuse that were occurring amongst teenagers. These media observations coincide with Chalfen’s (2009) understanding that todays media culture seek to sensationalize events and trends. Such sensationalization requires that the news only report the ‘sexting’ occurrences that ‘go wrong’, giving a clearly unbalances view of the issue.
Calvert (2009-2010) and Chalfen (2010) do however make the observation that the majority of media coverage had been based on a single study and therefore may not have correctly represent the proportionality of ‘sexting’ among youth. The Pew Institute (p.1) held a similar study in December of 2009, exploring ‘How and why minor teens are sending sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude images via text messaging’. The study showed that only four percent of teens between the age of 12 and 17 had sent sexually suggestive images to someone else. These findings clearly conflict with those commonly sited by the media and bring to question the seriousness of the debate. While many ‘sexting’ cases have been cited both in the media and in scholarly papers, the issue, which seems to be most prevalent among those participating in the discussion, appears to be the punishments attached to such actions.
The sample chosen for this research consists of four major television stations, MTV, Fox News, CNN and MSNBC. These stations were chosen in an attempt to gain the widest possible representations on the subject of sexting. Each of these stations caters to a separate audience and demographic and therefore the use of these four television stations should provide the largest possible variety in framings of sexting. In total 70 video clips were analyzed during this research. These included short news segments, special interest stories, human-interest pieces, and 30 minute specials, all broadcast between 2008 and 2011.
Theoretical Framework & Method
To effectively analyse the news content this research employed a theoretical framework of Framing. Lambert explains, “News framing refers to selecting and emphasizing certain aspects of issues” (Lambert, Lepre, Massengale, Marcum, & Wells, 2007). Through an analysis of the language used, and information both presented and omitted this research attempts to identify one or several patters of framing used in the presentation of ‘sexting’.
A Thematic methodology was employed to guild the research. Such an approach seeks to analyse data and extrapolate common themes and patterns (Fereday, Muir-Cochrane, 2006). Questions this research sought to answer include, how is ‘sexting’ being discussed in broadcast news? Who are broadcast media placing the blame on in relation to the social phenomenon of sexting? What repercussion of ‘sexting’ are being discussed and how are these being presented? Ultimately this research has attempted to identify whether or not the media in relation to ‘sexting’ created a moral panic, and in what manner this was being presented to the public.
To analyse the sexting clips this research has separated the clips into 3 groups. Those that focus on sexting scandals, those that address the legalities of sexting and finally those clips that analyse the social impact and causes of sexting. By organising the clips into these categories this research attempts to track the focus of sexting stories and therefore it’s framing. Framing refers to the angle by which the story is presented and these three groups allow for the most appropriate understanding of the issue. Scholars suggest that from the beginning of sexting’s coverage on television there has been a moral panic inflated by the media (Albury et al., 2010). Through the analysis of these groups this research will try to identify whether or not there was indeed a moral panic. Here it should also be noted that MTV’s special on ‘sexting’ while prevalent in presenting the way in which sexting is framed towards teens, does not fit within the larger thematic of this researches findings as both its timing and framing appear to be for separate audiences not related specifically to the issues raised by the other news media. Therefore the analysis of MTVs framing will be addressed in a separate section to that of MSNBC, Fox News and CNN. The importance of MTV to this research is its target audience of teens and the media representation of sexting towards this demographic.
In the online archive for MSNBC only six clips are associated with sexting. Of these six, four refer to sexting scandals, one to the legalities of sexting and one regarding the social consequences. In this case almost 70 precent of the segments were related to sexting scandals, all of which were surrounding a scandal involving retired Vikings quarterback Brett Favre at the end of 2010. The most recent clip dealt with a new bill in Texas attempting to reform the punishment for sexting, while the earliest clip presented the case of Jessica Logan. MSNBC’s coverage of sexting in comparison to the other networks appears not to contribute to the moral panic originally espoused by scholars. While their first segment was released during the initial media frenzy surrounding sexting, includes Jessica Logan’s mother (she also appeared on CNN and Fox News), and framed sexting as a negative issue with serious consequences, the lack of further coverage indicates that MSNBC did not identify sexting as a social ‘epidemic’ like the other stations. MSNBC does however create an interesting contrast in its interest with the sexting scandal as it suggests societies growing obsession with celebrity news. While on CNN and Fox News sexting was covered largely as a social issue, MSNBC’s coverage clearly emphasises the scandalised nature of sexting and societies interest in such matters.
In the segment discussing the new bill in Texas (February 18 2011) the anchor-woman framed the new law as one that could “land parents in a lot of trouble”. She further explained that the politician pushing the bill through wanted to crack down on sexting by ‘punishing the parents’. Here the framing of the story with extreme wording such as “A Texan politician wants to crackdown” suggests a negative connotation towards the punishing of parents. The anchor-woman followed her initial comments with a question framed in such a way as to suggest that she was siding with the parents. She proclaimed that it is hard enough for parents to keep tabs on their children’s online and cellular communications and asked ‘How you think this is going to work?’ While the question works as a segue, the framing of her language suggested her doubts in the bill. The senator then explained in detail that the bill would not ‘punish’ parents but would simply require them to attend an educational class with the children if the child is caught sexting. Here the focus is on the legal ramifications of sexting. One could suggest the extreme language used to address the bill might be appropriate for creating moral panic as the framing seeks to enrage parents over their possible punishment, however the arguments presented by the anchor-woman appear less a cry for action and more a sensationalisation of the topic.
The socially aware ‘Today’ (March, 2009) special which was broadcast during the initial media frenzy between February and May of 2009, presented the emotional side of sexting in relation to Jessica Logan tragedy and the extreme consequences and harm sexting causes not just the sexters but also those around them. In the special the audiences is presented with Jessica’s mother crying as she retells the circumstances that led to her daughters suicide. Similarly Jessica’s friend is shown teary eyed. The opening section of the special explains the situation surrounding Jessica’s harassment due to her ex-boyfriends thoughtless actions of forwarding a nude photo of the teen to other classmates. The opening also addresses Jessica’s attempts to deal with the issue by appearing on television anonymously and talking about the consequences of sexting. The narrator’s language “A life time of anguish for those she left behind” reinforces the understanding of this human interest pieces framing as one of emotional consequences on the family of sexters. Here the framing in not of fear but instead captures viewers attention regarding the emotional impact of sexting on ‘those we love’. The narrator explains that doctors have found that “teenagers are unable to recognise long term consequences”. Such framing of the issue suggests that the problem might not go away and leads into the next discussion of how schools and other social programs might deal with the issue. The special at no times attempts to tackle the original sext or discuss how society might prevent sexting. Instead the focus here is on what the school or police might have done to prevent the harassment of Jessica from carrying on to such extreme lengths. The framing is around social awareness of how to deal with sexting and not how to stop the act of sexting itself. Jessica’s mother asks ‘why aren’t the schools held responsible?’ At no time in the special do they question what should happen to the boy who forwarded the message or to other forwarding offenders. The framing of this special should be seen as one that tries to capture the emotional damage caused by sexting and the questioning of social structures such as schools and police departments and their roll in dealing with sexting amongst minors.
When conducting a search in the CNN online video archive, 27 video clips appeared after searching the word ‘Sexting’. Of the 27, six were related to sexting scandals, seven discussed the legal ramifications of sexting, and 12 focused on the social aspects of sexting (with one being a doubled clip). Since September 2010, six of the last ten clips were associated with sexting scandals, while only four were broadcast focusing on the legal and social aspects; each with two a piece. In comparison to the first ten clips beginning at May 2008, eight clips focused on the social issues with just two addressing the legal implications of sexting. This indicates a drastic shift in framing over the last three years and to some extent reinforces the findings of the MSNBC analysis that indicate societies interest in entertainment news has become more valued than societal issues. While the framing of the scandals obviously portrays sexting as a negative practice, the focus is more on the controversy it causes for those involved rather than any social implications.
In relation to legal issues surrounding sexting two of the most recent clips discussed a new bill in Texas seeking to lessen the criminal charges of sexting for minors while requiring both children and parents to attend classes on the dangers of sexting (Feb 8 & 9 2011). The framing in both stories suggest a partial responsibility on behalf of the parents for the children’s actions. CNN’s framing of the Texan bill appears to focus on the education of parents and children without framing the parental classes as ‘punishment’ as was stated by MSNBC. This comparison suggests a difference in framing between the networks. Where MSNBC highlighted early in their piece the ‘punishing’ nature of the new Texan bill, CNN describe it simply as an attempt to ‘educate instead of criminalise’. The framing is therefore important in regards to how they are trying to pursued the viewers. MSNBC’s approach could be seen as a way of instilling negative views towards the bill by describing the classes as punishment for the parents, while CNN’s framing as education may be seen as in favour of the bill. In each of the clips on both MSNBC and CNN discussing the legalities the framing remains constant, that the current punishment for minors sexting is disproportionate to the crimes being committed. In a clip from April 2009, Lisa Bloom describes the charging of minors as sex offenders a ‘waste of resources’. The framing in the piece clearly suggests the inappropriate nature of current laws in dealing with sexting.
The most dramatic shift in CNN’s framing occurs within the presentation of socially aware clips in relation to sexting. Of the first ten news reports on sexting eight discussed some social aspect of sexting. When juxtaposed against the most recent ten stories there is a 60-precent difference. This alone presents an obvious shift in focus and framing. The most recent clip related to social issues frames sexting as an issue that is related to the immature nature of the adolescent brain (Feb 10, April 19 2011). Such framing coincides with that of MSNBC where the capacity of the adolescent brain is questioned when dealing with sexting. This indicates a shift in framing as the earlier news segments placed some or all the blame on children for their actions while the more recent clips appear to have a better understanding of the media phenomenon and frame sexting as not just the children’s fault but also the parents and schools.
The framing that appears throughout the 27 clips appears to focus most commonly on the consequences of sexting and identifies all sexting as a negative social trend, without making any distinctions between primary and secondary sexting. The overall framing of why teens sext and what influences their behaviour clearly shifts between debates of society norms and pressures, parental or institutional supervision, and teen dating rituals and their inability to understand the long term consequences. In most clips education of both parents and teens arises as a requirement for dealing with sexting. Finally, a common framing in the news clips places a large emphasis on parents responsibility in preventing sexting and asks them to gain an understand of their children’s actions and better communicate with them.
In the Fox News archives 35 videos return when searching the word ‘sexting’. Of the 35, seven were non-related or mentioned sexting in passing, 11 specifically dealt with the social aspects of sexting, 11 discussed the legalities surrounding sexting and six addressed scandals involving sexting. Unlike MSNBC, here scandal only constitutes around 18 precent of the total broadcasted clips.
Similar to CNN the trends in covering sexting appear to shift between the earlier stages of social and legal issues, through to more focus on legalities, to finally more recent coverage of sexting scandals. Of the first ten clips dealing with sexting, six addressed social problems around sexting, three examined the legal issues and one framed its story around a sexting scandal. This trend reinforces that of CNN. The media coverage of sexting from CNN and Fox News during the first few months could possibly have created a moral panic through its consistent output of sexting segments that highlighted the serious nature of its consequences. As will become evident in the subsequent analysis of the overall rhetoric during this early period the framing of sexting is shown as a negative practice with serious repercussions for any parties involved. In 2010 the framing of sexting shifted with the discussion of the new Texan bill to try and change the punishment for first time offenders. During this period six videos were released all of which dealing with the legal problems in the current prosecution of sexting offenders. The framing of this period still presented elements of fear but more commonly framed the legal consequences as disproportionate to the crime and furthermore questioned the over all system of dealing with sexting.
After examining the dates of all 70 clips in the sample three specific periods appear to be important in relation to the volume of segments discussing sexting. In the first four-month period between February 2009 and May 2009, 15 Fox segments were broadcast. These dates coincide with both the CNN’s first cluster, where 7 of the total 27 videos appeared, and MSNBC’s first special dealing with the sexting. The framing of this period presents two main characteristics, the first being a framing of fear. The angle’s used to present the story combined with the language and rhetoric of the segments clearly suggest a framing that attempts to promote fear in the audience. The second element of this periods framing addresses the unjust nature of the legal ramifications of sexting. The segments depict the legal consequences of child pornography charges and possible sex offender charges as unequal to the crime committed. The second period occurred between March and May of 2010. During this time Connecticut lawmakers were attempting to enact a bill to deal with sexting. This bill would see minors convicted of sexting face only misdemeanour charges instead of felon charges and would not place them on the sex offender’s registry but would instead require parents and children to attend educational meetings about the dangers of sexting. This period also highlights a key element of the broadcast medias framing of sexting a social issue linked to parents and not just the actions of children. The third period of interest in relation to sexting began in December 2010 and continues up until the present (April 2011). This period unlike the two before places the majority of its focus on sexting scandals. This third period while not dealing with sexting amongst minors does show how our society is becoming more interested with scandals and celebrity news then social issues. The news coverage of the Texan bill also featured during this period however its overall coverage in comparison to scandals signifies a shift in overall framing.
During the first period of interest both the Jessica Logan and the Philip Alpert stories became prevalent in the media. This was due to the extreme nature of their conclusions, with Logan committing suicide and Alpert registering as a sex offender at the age of 18 until he turns 43. The clustering of segments in these dates suggests a media frenzy which can be identified by these two major incidences. The framing of sexting during this first period used rhetoric of fear in an attempt to perused audiences that such trends have severe negative consequences. In one Fox segment (March 25th, 2009), during an interview Jessica’s mother pleads to the audience to understand that sexted photos will “follow them for the rest of their lives… they will be downloaded from the Internet… and follow them wherever they are”. Such statements signify both a cry for understanding but also a framing of fear, the fear that one action is inescapable. In another Fox segment by Geraldo on March 30th of 2009, the anchor describes sexting as a “serious crime”. The segment then continues with a string of sound bites that explain how a young girls semi-naked photos were found on Myspace and how she was subsequently arrested on child pornography charges. The sound bites use similar language to that of the anchor expressing the serious nature of the charges. Furthermore throughout the segment ominous music is layered over the background, creating an almost cinematic fear effect. The music leads the viewer’s emotions as they watch the segment. The framing of this segment is made clear through the language used to discuss sexting. Words such as epidemic, dangerous, sex offenders, and child pornographers frame sexting in such away as to make it both appear to be a rampant social problem and a serious threat to minors. This trend of fearful language appears in CNN and to a lesser extent MSNBC segments as well. Interestingly in all the clips during this period only one addresses the issue of secondary sexting as described in the literature review. All other clips place the onus on the original sexter. The framing of the issue places the original blame on the girl (or some cases boy) who sends the first sext without ever seriously addressing or examining the malicious actions of secondary sexters, or defining the difference.
The practice of sexting itself is framed as a negative social phenomenon and little to no discussion is raised about the different acts of primary and secondary sexting. In segments during this early period relating to Philip Alpert’s case the framing actually positions Philip as the victim, even though he forwarded a sext of his ex-girlfriend to 70 people on her email list. In one Fox segment from May 29th, 2009 in which Alpert is interviewed, he describes how he and his ex-girlfriend had a fight one night and in a fit of rage he subsequently forwarded the semi-nude pictures that she had sent him in confidence to 70 people on her email list, including her parents, teachers and grandparents. Following the description the anchor-woman asks “How has this affected your life”, to which he responded with a string of complaints about being kicked out of college, being unable to find work and not being able to find a place to live because he was required to register as a sex offender after he was charged with disseminating child pornography. In the remainder of the interview the anchor-woman does not ask a single question or raise a single point that deals with what Alpert had done and how this affected the life of his ex-girlfriend. The framing of this segment attempts to instil fear in those who might act in a similar manner to Alpert. The anchor-woman explains how “these pictures stay around forever… and just sending it around in an email can get you into so much trouble.” This statement clearly downplays the seriousness of Alpert’s actions in relation to the damage he may have caused his ex-girlfriend. Instead the segment frames the serious nature of the legalities associated with such acts. Alpert is the victim because, all he did was send around an email and this landed him on the sex offenders list. But was it just an email or were his actions malicious and did they have the potential to ruin another person’s life? In this segment the framing is clearly in favour of Alpert and of using fear to educate viewers. CNN similarly frame Alpert as the victim. Like the Fox segment Alpert is interviewed in regards to his extreme conviction as a sex offender. He describes himself as being “depressed for the last two years” (March 30th, 2009). The anchor-woman here also frames his conviction as extreme when she describes his being on the sex offender’s registry with “some of the most disgusting pedophiles on the face of this earth”. Such language down plays Alpert’s actions and tries to create an image in the viewers minds that suggests the unjust nature of his conviction, however in both the segments the anchor-women fail to address the serious nature of his actions. Instead they simple address the serious consequences for Alpert and the social consequences for his ex-girlfriend are conveniently overlooked in order to reinforce Alpert’s legal troubles. Through the framing of Alpert’s case and the initial media frenzy presented by CNN and Fox News’ coverage of sexting, with the extreme language used and frequency of output, it can be argued that these television news stations did attempt to create a moral panic. The rhetoric and language suggest a framing of both fear and sensationalism, both elements of a media initiated moral panic. Sexting segments during this early period spread the blame for sexting over teens, parents and social institutions such as schools and police. Furthermore unlike some scholars all television stations framed sexting as a negative social action. During one Fox News (27th May, 2009) segment Bill O’Reilly discussed a Canadian University professor that described sexting as the ‘modern day spin the bottle’. O’Reilly then continued by naming the professor as ‘insane’ and implying that his ideas were laughable. The short length of this period also could indicate the ineffectiveness of the moral panic associated with sexting. As the initial period of interest only spanned four months, it can be concluded that while the media may have attempted to create a moral panic their actions fell short in capturing the public’s attention.
During the second period in 2010 public interest was once again sparked in sexting due to the possibly controversial bill submitted in Connecticut. During this period Fox News released six videos directly related to sexting. Three of the Fox News segments focused on the bill itself while the other three framed the over all legal issues of sexting. In a segment by Lis Whiehl (May 17th, 2010) language such as “possession of child pornography… distributing child pornography… you don’t want your child to be labelled a sex offender for the rest of other lives” clearly positions the framing of this story as one of fear. The tone and structure of the segment build to a climax in which Whiehl addresses parents with language that is designed to instil fear in the parents of the repercussions of sexting. This segments framing can be argued to be reasserting the attempted moral panic surrounding sexting. The framing of the three segments that specifically deal with the bill suggest that Fox News is in favour of the bill. When explaining the current laws dealing with sexting, Fox News frequently highlight the disproportionate nature of the punishments. The journalists used words such as “Have to prosecute as sex offenders… no parent wants their child persecuted… when kids are doing this they are just being foolish.” The framing of the segments dealing with the bill suggest a more informative framing than Whiehl’s segment and therefore may lessen the argument for a moral panic, however the volume of news pieces during this period, with three segments not dealing with the bill but instead reasserting the issue may indeed indicate an attempt at moral panic by Fox News. These findings correlate with that CNN’s in that four segments were broadcast during this period, where the one that directly dealt with the bill (March 30th, 2010) did frame it as a positive movement towards legal reform. As only one of the four segments directly dealt with the bill here too it might be argued that CNN attempted to renew the moral panic over sexting. In contrast MSNBC did not release any segments related to sexting during this period, this indicates their lack of interest in sexting during this period.
The Final section of interest from December 2010 until the present emphasises the drastic shift in the socially accepted topics of national news headlines. The period of 2008 – 2009 saw the news media focus on sexting as a serious social problem worthy of national attention and discussion, while today’s coverage has clearly been superseded by celebrity news and scandal. At MSNBC 80 precent of clips broadcast since 2010 deal with celebrity sexting scandals, at CNN 60 precent, and similarly at Fox News 60 precent of clips discuss sexting scandals. This clearly indicates a cultural shift in the understanding and presentation of sexting. While sexting continues to be a social problem amongst teens the media representation has shifted from one of concern for the children to a sensationalised trivialising of sexting ssociated with celebrity scandals.
Throughout the MTV video archive, of the seven clips returned only 2 MTV broadcasts deal directly with the issue of sexting. The first is a 1-minute interview with Ludacris in which he talks about the Tiger Wood’s scandal, and the second is a 30-minute special on the dangers of sexting entitled “When privates goes public”, which was released on February 13th, 2010. In an article to promote the special the writer describes the show as “All Time Low and Asher Roth have teamed up with MTV to inform people about serious harm sexting, cyber bullying and online harassment can cause.”
The special addresses the dangers of sexting amongst minors. The framing used throughout the special is one of fear. This can be identified through the two main characters presented in the special. The first, Philip Alpert is framed as a victim of unfair laws when he is prosecuted for forwarding his ex-girlfriends sext to 70 people, but the consequences of his actions are not addressed. As a forwarder of sexts he is not questioned I regards to why he did it or what punishment would be appropriate but is instead presented as an extreme example of what may occur to minors if they engage in sexting. . The framing of Alpert in the show presents the lasting effect that forwarding of a sext had on his life. Therefore the blame here is not on Philip but on the system that punished him. The driving factor to prevent his actions is fear. Fear of the consequences that may occur when a minor sexts. The show does not identify the reason for his actions or attempt an analysis of how to prevent such actions. In this segment of the special the social consequences for his ex-girlfriend are not addressed and the end result of her life thanks to his actions is never covered. Here the goal is fear through Alpert’s conviction.
Ally’s story similarly frames the issue through fear by discussing how she sent the text and it is therefore her fault that she was thereafter harassed. Ally’s ordeal started when her ex-boyfriend forwarded on a topless photo of her to other classmates. Following his actions ally was tormented and harassed through out the school as her picture continued to make its way through the students. In Ally’s story the ex-boyfriend who forwarded the photos is never questions. His motives are not addressed nor is it probed why he was not punished or dealt with. Ally’s story presents the exact opposite of Alpert’s with the same focused telling of only one side. The segments clearly attempt to instil fear in the viewers of either gender. For woman Ally’s story is framed to teach young woman not to sext, while Alpert’s story appears to be a message for young boys. The actions of both teens were contradictory to one another’s and therefore the presentation of them back to back clearly presents a framing that seeks to educate through fear.
The special further includes a segment with a multimedia expert Richard Guerry who also asserts sexting within a framing of fear. He describes the dangerous nature of sexting and how easy it is for the sext to make it onto the net. He’s word selection “sexting… is a very bad idea” “everyday sexting pictures are stolen and sold on the black-market”. Such descriptions present the issue of unintended sexting consequences as something that can happen even when all intended parties are innocent. It frames these consequences as almost inescapable.
Unlike the other samples used in this research this show is targeted at children and as such presents a framing by MTV to educate on the harms of sexting. The special does not deal with educating children on the issue itself, the social causes, developing an understanding of the dynamics of sexting in schools or to educate children not to sext, it simply tries to warn teens of the danger associated with sexting and through a framing of fear attempt to prevent them from engaging in the practice.
After reflecting on the original questions posed in the paper and the over all analysis of the research, the findings of this paper shows that throughout the initial period of news interest in sexting both CNN and Fox News attempted to create a moral panic, while MSNBC’s coverage framed sexting in a similar light but did not produce the equivalent output to justify a moral panic. The framing by all news stations in this research (including MTV) depicts the negative aspects of sexting without a counter discussion of possible positive aspects as identified by scholars. Issues such as healthy teen sexual exploration are not addressed throughout the media coverage. The blame of sexting as a social phenomenon shifts throughout the various periods and stations however a common theme arises with earlier coverage focusing on teens and to a lesser extent parents and schools, while later coverage acknowledges teens inability to comprehend future consequences and therefore exam’s parents rolls in dealing with sexting. Finally, the consequences of sexting are uniformly presented by all stations as long lasting in regards to both legal and social ramifications. These finds address key elements of sexting and representation in the media, however further study might be undertaken to identify why primary and secondary sexting is not presented as different offenses. Further research may also analyse why there has not been additional of alternative legal responses to sexting many legal reforms have been proposed by lawyers and lawmakers, as identified in the scholarly literature review. While this paper endeavoured to provide a broad sample to represent the full extent of framings in the media, further research into local, state and international coverage of sexting would assist in presenting a more conclusive finding in regards to those questions posed earlier in the paper. Another weakness may be the grouping of sexting framing into three categories. These categories may generalise the overall aspects of the news segments, which deal with more nuanced ideas and opinions within the framing of sexting.
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