On April 17, Fox News (Right bias) prominently featured the headline, “New UN-backed legal recommendations normalize sex with minors, critics say,” along with the tagline, “PLAN ALL ALONG.” The headline was later changed to add the qualifier that critics are “outraged.”
The story focuses on a report released in March by the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), which says, among other things, “Sexual conduct involving persons below the domestically prescribed minimum age of consent to sex may be consensual in fact, if not in law.”
However, Fox’s story relies heavily on both its own interpretations and those of conservative Twitter accounts to sensationalize and misleadingly frame the report. The case provides a good example of how biased media can play into audience preconceptions and make unsubstantiated narratives appear true.
The report, titled “The 8 March Principles for a Human Rights-Based Approach to Criminal Law Proscribing Conduct Associated with Sex, Reproduction, Drug Use, HIV, Homelessness and Poverty,” covers a wide range of topics, including abortion, sex work, HIV, and drug use, all with an eye on the ethical justifications of criminalization.
Edwin Cameron, a retired South African judge and one of the report’s endorsers, wrote in a foreword that the report’s principles “seek to offer a clear, accessible and workable legal framework – as well as practical legal guidance – on applying the criminal law to conduct” associated with a variety of topics, including “adolescent sexual activity.”
The source of the report’s criticism can be found in Principle 16, which covers “Consensual Sexual Conduct.” Here it is, in full:
“Consensual sexual conduct, irrespective of the type of sexual activity, the sex/gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression of the people involved or their marital status, may not be criminalized in any circumstances. Consensual same-sex, as well as consensual different-sex sexual relations, or consensual sexual relations with or between trans, non-binary and other genderdiverse people, or outside marriage – whether pre-marital or extramarital – may, therefore, never be criminalized.
With respect to the enforcement of criminal law, any prescribed minimum age of consent to sex must be applied in a non-discriminatory manner. Enforcement may not be linked to the sex/gender of participants or age of consent to marriage.
Moreover, sexual conduct involving persons below the domestically prescribed minimum age of consent to sex may be consensual in fact, if not in law. In this context, the enforcement of criminal law should reflect the rights and capacity of persons under 18 years of age to make decisions about engaging in consensual sexual conduct and their right to be heard in matters concerning them. Pursuant to their evolving capacities and progressive autonomy, persons under 18 years of age should participate in decisions affecting them, with due regard to their age, maturity and best interests, and with specific attention to non-discrimination guarantees.”
Rather than explicitly discussing adult sexual contact with minors, the report focuses on cases of “sexual conduct involving” minors. This language is vague, however, creating room for unfavorable interpretations.
Since Fox’s article, the story was picked up by several right-rated outlets, most of which featured headlines like “The United Nations now promotes adults having sex with minors.”
The story gained enough traction that Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and six other Republican senators sent a letter to U.N. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, “demanding to know whether the Biden Administration was aware of the report prior to its publication and expressing opposition to providing UN contributions to any initiatives that promote underage sex.”
Several fact-checkers responded to these articles; AP Fact Check (Lean Left bias) rated the adult-minor sex narrative as “false,” Verify (Center) called it “misleading,” Politifact (Lean Left bias) rated it “false,” AFP Fact Check (Center bias) called it “false.”
Furthermore, U.N. spokesman Stéphane Dujarric criticized what he called the “malicious misreporting” of the ICJ report:
“It did not call for the decriminalization of sex with children, nor did it call for the abolition of the age of consent. The International Commission of Jurists report set out legal principles to guide the application of the international human rights law to criminal law across a range of issues. In the application of law, it is recognized that criminal sanctions are not appropriate against adolescents of similar ages for consensual non-exploitative sexual activity. So, too, it is recognized that adolescents should not be prevented from accessing health services, which protect them. The UN is resolute in fighting the sexual exploitation of children, upholds that sexual exploitation and abuse of children is a crime, and supports countries to protect children.”
Spin Labeled as News
While the Fox News report is not labeled “analysis” or “opinion” — fostering the assumption that it was simply news — it described the ICJ report as “shocking,” saying it “appears to open the floodgates to normalize sex with minors.”
Later on, it adds that the “shocking” recommendations from “international legal elites” underscore recent developments, which have evolved with “bewildering speed.”
Only in its fifth paragraph does Fox state that the report “does not actively call for decriminalizing sex between adults and minors,” adding, “But it states that children have both the capacity and the legal right to make sexual decisions.”
Once the facts are out of the way, Fox begins discussing the report’s critics, who it says “touched off a horrified reaction on social media around the world.” That reaction was evidenced by three tweets — from former Daily Caller (Right bias) contributor Ian Miles Cheong, former NHL player Theo Fleury, and Women's Action Group co-founder Michelle Uriarau.
Cheong is a right-wing blogger with 537.9k followers on Twitter. Fox cites Cheong’s tweet from the preceding Saturday, which states, “According to the United Nations, children may consent to sex with adults. This has been the plan all along.”
Fox leads with Cheong’s comments in its tagline, stating, “'Children may consent to sex with adults. This has been the plan all along,' social media influencer charges.” By highlighting this quote, Fox News shows bias by viewpoint placement, and seems to imply that this claim of a global pedophilic conspiracy has merit.
Fleury’s tweet, also from that Saturday, simply states, “The UN is full of pedophiles!!!!” While Fox only describes Fleury as a “former NHL star and Canadian Olympic gold medalist,” his Twitter bio states that he is a “Patriot and lover of freedom.”
Uriarau’s tweet appears to have been deleted, but was quoted by Fox as stating, “This hideous UN report … seeks to decriminalize sex — even between children and minors. Evil.”
Her tweets often included links to a report from Live Action (Lean Right bias), which says it “publishes pro-life news and commentary from a pro-life perspective.” Live Action’s headline, which said the “UN report” sought to decriminalize sex “between adults and children,” was published the previous Friday.
The Fox article also suggests that “people in positions of authority have worked to break traditional legal bounds, societal structures and once-universal taboos for the purpose of sexualizing children.” While many conservatives share this general perception, this particular language also aligns with the theories of conspiracy groups like QAnon.
Fox brings two main points of evidence to back up this suggestion.
First, it cites the “disturbing case” of Jeffrey Epstein, convicted of trafficking underage girls for sexual exploitation to an island reportedly visited by many wealthy elites. Second, Fox cites a “sudden dramatic rise in the number of transgender people and normalization of transgender culture, fueled by popular culture and public education, defying all known historic precedent.”
Additionally, Fox states that “educators in many instances now brazenly state that parents have limited rights over their children while their classrooms grow increasingly sexualized.”
The idea that educating minors about gender identity amounts to “sexualizing” them is considered deeply offensive by the trans community and its allies. Some conservatives, on the other hand, question the impact of gender identity education on young minds.
Want the Full Story? Go Past the Headlines
As a general rule, when you see an alarming claim like “UN-backed legal recommendations normalize sex with minors,” it’s best to avoid jumping to conclusions and wait until evidence has sufficiently supported or debunked the claim.
This Fox News headline and homepage presentation suggests the U.N. has “planned all along” to let adults have sex with kids. What the article actually shows is a group of lawyers and jurists putting forth guidance on how to interpret sexual consent laws.
That guidance does state, “Sexual conduct involving persons below the domestically prescribed minimum age of consent to sex may be consensual in fact, if not law.” But that’s not itself enough evidence of a U.N. adult/child sex-normalization plot for Fox to have framed its article in such a way.
Since the article isn’t labeled as analysis or opinion, and rather presented as hard news, it could be considered both biased and misleading since it presents no direct evidence of such a plot from the U.N.
To fully understand this case, you have to look at the original quotes. That research can take time — a few minutes, but often more than the average reader is willing to spend. The unfortunate truth is that many of us will not read past the headline.
Headlines are usually too vague to show the whole picture. It’s imperative to read beyond the headlines before reaching a conclusion.
Joseph Ratliff is a Daily News Editor at AllSides. He has a Lean Left bias.
This piece was reviewed by Daily News Editor Isaiah Anthony (Center Bias), Content Intern Johnathon Held (Lean Right bias), Director of Marketing Julie Mastrine (Lean Right bias), and Editor-in-chief Henry A. Brechter (Center bias).