SPJ Reading Room
When to Name Names
A case of missing children and sexual assault prompted an SPJ Ethics Committee discussion of the best way to report what happened.
A teenage boy went missing in Missouri. As the community looked for him, his name was widely reported.
When he was found, though, along with another boy who had been missing for about five years, news media had to decide how to handle the situation: The abductor was accused of sexually abusing the boys.
Typically, news organizations don’t include the names of victims of sex abuse in their stories. In this case, The Associated Press used the boys’ names while reporting the alleged sex crimes against them. The AP explained its decision in its story:
"While it is The Associated Press’ policy not to identify alleged victims of sexual abuse in most cases, the story of Shawn and Ben has been widely publicized and their names are now well-known. Also, their families have gone public, conducting several media interviews."
Here’s one version of the story.
What follows is an edited version of the Ethics Committee’s discussion, which began with a question from SPJ Director at Large Molly McDonough. She was asked about the case when she was a guest at Columbia College Chicago.
"I remember this being an issue in the Elizabeth Smart case," McDonough wrote to the committee. "At some point, these children go from missing persons, where it’s in everyone’s best interest to name the child, to victims, who may need more privacy as the case continues to play out and focus on the alleged perpetrator."
"The Missouri and Smart cases are a little different from the average
small-town sexual assault case. These involved abductions in which the parents sought out the media and asked for exposure so their children could be found and returned....
"In this case, it would be more irresponsible not to name the names and put to rest that the children in question were, indeed, the ones being sought than to name them.
"However, if it’s a case of ... sexually assaulting the neighbor’s kid absent an abduction or public spectacle, I would say no. My paper’s policy was we did not name minor victims of any crime. However, policies are sometimes violated based on the circumstances. These are always hard to call."
— Nerissa Young
"You can’t put the cat back in the bag — nor should we spend much time discussing how it got out of the bag to begin with. This is and was a legitimate news story, with names, and the fact that the names are out there cannot be undone. I think it would appear ... more untruthful and manipulative (therefore less credible) if the media went through a song and dance about how they’re not going to use names that they’d used previously — and properly, in a kidnap case.
"On the other hand, we have an obligation to minimize harm, balanced against the need to seek truth and report it. That means what it says — minimizing harm, not eliminating it. And to me, it means that we should consider carefully and with great sensitivity the ramifications of all subsequent disclosures about these kids.
"To me, it’s a question now — as it so often is in other circumstances — of how much detail to report. Just because authorities release details in formal court documents does not mean that we are obligated to print them all. Whether we admit it or not, we are always omitting details, and I think we should do so in this case.
"For example, for all the AP’s show of sensitivity with the disclaimer on why they’re naming names, is it really necessary to public understanding of these events to tell how many times a day each boy was assaulted and (suggesting) in what manner? I think not. I think I would have reported that the charges included sexual molestation and detailed the nature and number of assaults — and left it at that ...
"The same issue of how much detail to show or provide occurs all the time. We discussed it when we talked about photos of the people leaping from the World Trade Center on 9/11. I think it’s generally agreed that the further the camera was from the leapers, the easier it was to justify such photographs. We needed to tell the horrible truths, but we didn't need to see the looks on the leapers’ faces. Same issue arises about showing the dead on a battlefield."
— Peter Y. Sussman
"... I thought AP covered its base appropriately.
"Unlike Nerissa, I do see a strong similarity between the Smart and Missouri cases. The families in both cases willingly exploited the media to get their children back. At the time, neither they nor the reporters and editors who latched onto these legitimate news stories were thinking ahead about whether the children they were naming were being sexually abused; the presumption was that, like many missing children, like John Walsh’s, they would probably be found dead, if found at all.
"Yes, Peter is right, the media were reporting a legitimate story, and the fact that we learned after the fact that the kids were molested is something that was going to come out in court anyway during the normal course of reporting on the prosecution of this creep. He is the perpetrator who wronged these children, not the media, who played a vital role in recovering them and restoring them to their families. They were his victims, not ours.
"In most cases, we can keep names of rape and sex abuse victims confidential. In this instance, we couldn’t. But it wasn’t because the media were ‘pandering to lurid curiosity,’ in the words of the (SPJ Ethics) Code. I think our consciences are clear.
"But there is another question that hasn’t been addressed here, and it’s a perennially touchy one in molestation and rape cases. If these boys had been found dead, as Walsh’s son was, that would have been reported, and they would have been named .... That’s a given.
"Is there less stigma to being murdered than to being molested or raped? In either case, they are victims, and we as a civilized society feel sympathy for victims, as we certainly do for these Missouri boys. The violation of their privacy, I think, is secondary to the violation of their persons.
"We also try to avoid using the names of juvenile criminal suspects, but sometimes it can’t be avoided. Remember the trial of the King brothers in Pensacola a few years back? They killed their abusive father with an ax, but unlike Lizzie Borden or the Menendez brothers, they were juveniles. How could that story have been reported without using their names? Two juveniles are being charged in the ax murder of their father?
Everyone knew the identity of the victim, so how could the media not have reported that his sons were the suspects?"
— Robert Buckman
"I think we can be most helpful by focusing our discussions not on whether ‘our consciences (are) clear’ for having named these boys, but on how we can minimize the harm in covering the announcement of charges and future judicial action. The critical question to me is not who was responsible for harming them in the past (that’s obvious), nor on how their names became public (also obvious — and justifiable). Nor is the question whether AP has ‘covered its base,’ which implies (to me) constructing a justification for its coverage.
"The question the AP story raised for me was: Given the fact that the names are out there and will stay out there, how can we handle coverage of the judicial process with sensitivity, to avoid inflicting still further harm on these boys? Isn’t that the only live ethical question?
"To me, the problem has less to do with the naming of names that are already known than the degree of detail on the number, frequency and nature of the sexual acts to which they were subjected. You can’t quantify or define that in advance, but I think the AP went further than was necessary to inform the public, in a way that could inflict further harm on the children.
"A lot of bad policy has come out of using this term, so I won’t endorse all its uses, but the term is helpful in this context: Can journalists tell the story of the judicial and punishment phases of the case while avoiding ‘revictimizing’ these victims, and, if so, how?
— Peter Y. Sussman
(This response was sent directly to McDonough when she first asked her question, but here is being added to the end of the discussion.)
"I think there are two competing interests here — privacy that is afforded to victims when sex crimes have been alleged and the responsibility (I’m not sure that’s the best word) to report the important elements of the story.
"Let’s say the sex crimes were alleged upfront, when the boys were first missing. The initial reaction for some media outlets might be to withhold their names. But that would create another dilemma. A boy is missing and reporting that might help find him, yet media reports would be missing that key detail.
"In this case, the names are already out there. I think it’s disingenuous to suddenly stop using their names in coverage when you know and the public knows them. Even if you cite your media company’s policy to not name sex abuse victims, you’re not really solving the problem. Anyone could pull up a story you ran one week earlier and there the names would be ....
"That leaves you with the prospect of breaking what is considered a standard policy of not identifying sex crime victims. But it’s not necessarily a rule (depending on your media outlet’s ethics code or guidelines). The SPJ Code of Ethics says ‘Be cautious about identifying juvenile suspects or victims of sex crimes.’ By thinking about it and weighing the options, you have been cautious.
"I think the way AP handled it in the story ... was good — especially
by explaining the decision in the story.
"One factor that works strongly in favor of naming them, as the AP pointed out, is that their families are talking openly about the fact that the boys allegedly were sexually abused. If the families asked the media not to report that, it would make the decision tougher.
"One thing I might have done differently is the amount of detail about the alleged sex crimes. I could see a case for reporting it as the AP did if the names were not used or for a different type of story. But since we’re unavoidably presenting these boys as sex crime victims, maybe it’s better to present the allegations as something like ‘accused of sexually abusing’ or whatever, and name the charges ...."
— Andy Schotz