Is it possible that I’m taking time out of a busy day to praise, of all things, today’s USATodaycover story on child sex offense trends? 

Ok, this is sort of off topic for this blog.  But I think the USAToday story raises a crucial point—that, despite the increasing level of media attention that gets paid to a few high-profile child sex offense cases, the actual trends are going quite dramatically in the right direction. According to the article, child sexual assault rates fell by 79% from 1993 through 2003.  (This may be cherry-picking the years, but the long-term trends seem perfectly legit, and agree with other crime trends.)

Of course, you wouldn’t be able to tell discern this trend from most of the media coverage on the topic—including from USAToday itself.  If you just watched the headlines, you might be convinced that sex offenses against children were soaring.   So in some ways, this story represents a rare admission from the press that you really can’t gauge what’s really happening in the world based on trends in media coverage.  In the end, actual data is far more important than a string of anecdotes, no matter how compelling they may be.

Now, obviously, the fact that sex offenses are on the decline overall doesn’t take away from the horror experienced by victims and their families, and doesn’t mean we should slacken our efforts to stop this sort of crime from happening.  And the media attention on a few high profile child sex offender cases may actually have been helpful in raising public awareness, and political action, around the issue.

But still, I think the story is a useful admission that newspaper headlines can mislead just as much as they can illuminate.