Wick Communications

‘Yes I can’ isn’t ‘Yes I should’

In Ethics on March 25, 2011 at 8:39 am

Editor Tom Locke, of The Flume in Bailey, Colo., ignited a bit of a firestorm last week with a question both simple and complex that he posed to fellow members of the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors.

Here’s the scenario: A therapist in town alerted authorities when he learned from a client that she had been involved in a sexual relationship with a female church mentor that began when she was just 15 years old. The young woman apparently considers the relationship consensual and is about to testify – along with about 30 local residents – at the trial of the church mentor.

Here’s the question: Should The Flume name the alleged victim of the sex crime?

Suffice to say, there was a wide range of opinion among editors in the society. Some thought it was a matter of public record. Others thought naming the victim could have a chilling effect on other women who might be considering coming forward in similar crimes. There were a couple of impassioned arguments that naming the alleged criminal unfairly disparaged a woman who might be found not guilty. Locke himself wondered aloud whether it mattered that the sordid affair was between two willing partners and whether the fact that it appears to be between same-sex partners had any bearing…

It’s easy to consider these things in the abstract, to say you have a policy and will never vary from that policy. It’s more difficult to sort out the issues when it’s happening in your community right now and whatever you do is going to roil the populace.

I could tell you what I think, but I wanted to share the comments of Bill Reader instead. Reader (that’s the handsome devil in the photo above) is an associate professor at the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University. Bill’s response is long, but I think it’s worth it. Please pay particular attention to what he says about gender and consent. Take it away, Bill:

“Tom — You are facing one of the more persistent dilemmas in our business. I get calls and emails about this all the time. My advice is to be consistent with past practice; the issue of naming/not naming alleged victims is a third rail of community journalism, and you don’t want to touch it unless there is no other choice.

“Legally, assuming Colorado law is consistent with most other states, you should have every right to publish the name if it comes up in court. Ethically, the question is whether ‘yes I can’ is the same as ‘yes I should.’

“The tradition of not publishing the names of alleged sex-crime victims actually was a late-20th century effort by women/children advocates and law enforcement/prosecutors to encourage victims to come forward and file charges; the belief then, as it is now, is that not identifying the alleged victims in the news media would remove social stigma as a deterrence. Many newspapers adopted fairly strict policies and stick by them, usually adding boilerplate disclosure high up in each story, such as ‘The News has a policy not to identify alleged victims of sexual assault.’

“The case you describe seems to involve too many red-flag issues to simply rely on what the law allows. I see here a variety of issues that require a great deal of sensitivity: sex with teens/children; homosexuality; church/religion; and inappropriate mentor/student relationships. Public interest in this case is likely to be huge, and criticism of your coverage — no matter how balanced — could be unreasonably hostile (there actually is a term for it in media theory — it’s called “hostile media effect,” and it’s a real phenomenon).

“Ultimately, I think you have to make the best decision for your community. What is to be gained by naming the alleged victim? If she is relatively unknown, or from a relatively unknown family, the news value of her identity is obviously diminished — to the general public, she will be known as ‘that girl who had sex with that Sunday-school teacher’ or some such. If she is the daughter of the minister of the church, or of the chief of police or sheriff or other well-known public official, her identity may be marginally more newsworthy — that doesn’t mean you should identify her, but you might have a harder time explaining why you didn’t as the rumors circulate.

“A few cautions, regardless of what you decide regarding her identity:

  • “In the eyes of the law, sexual relations between and adult and a minor is not ‘consensual.’ The argument is that the child is not mature enough to make an informed choice on the matter. That the defendant is alleged to have been in a position of authority over the teen clearly is recognized in Colorado law given the ways the statutes appear to be written. I advise you strongly to never use the word ‘consensual’ in any context other than in direct quotations from the litigants (that is, to avoid backlash, you and your staff should not suggest in columns, editorials, or discussions with readers or sources that the relationship was ‘consensual’).
  • “Also, be very careful about suggesting that this case is different because it is ‘between two females.’ You would be opening yourself up to charges of sexism, which may not be fair or justified, but that would add to your trouble. This is a case of an adult allegedly having sexual relations with a child, and gender should not influence your decision about whether to identify the child.
  • “‘Lives in another state’ has been a weak reason for decades (Gina Grant couldn’t escape her dark past when she moved from South Carolina to Boston); in the age of Twitter and Facebook, the phrase has no weight in making decisions in a newsroom. Cartoons depicting Muhammad were published in a newspaper in Denmark and sparked riots (some of the them deadly) throughout the Muslim world. Always assume that what you publish is going to be made available to the entire world. Your Web articles will go viral, given the inherent news value of the story. Expect to get a lot of feedback from outside of your community, especially if you identify the teen.
  • “Don’t worry about the other sites in your community where her identity might be revealed. You and your newspaper will be judged by your decision and the reasons for it.
  • “Whatever you decide, I strongly recommend you write a very clear column to put in the paper and online explaining your decision, and run it either before the trial starts or with the very first article you publish on the trial. Getting out front on the issue will help you and your staff brace for the criticisms to come.”
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