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Ethics Case Studies
Naming Victims of Sex Crimes

WHAT: On June 5, 2002, 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart was abducted from her bedroom in Salt Lake City, Utah. Elizabeth’s parents worked with local and national media to increase visibility of the case; public interest in the kidnapping of the attractive, accomplished blonde teenager was immense. Nine months after the abduction, Elizabeth’s younger sister, who had witnessed the kidnapping, remembered that the abductor’s voice sounded like that of a vagrant who had done some work for the family some months before the kidnapping. That detail ultimately led to Elizabeth’s rescue, which was a major media story nationwide.

Elizabeth’s suspected kidnappers, a man and a woman, were charged with several crimes, including sexual assault. Their trial was indefinitely postponed, as both suspects have been deemed mentally unfit to stand trial. Then in November 2009, the woman pleaded guilty, apologized to Elizabeth, agreed to testify against the man and was sentenced to 15 years in prison. A new competency hearing for the man was held in late 2009.

After Elizabeth was returned to them, her parents, Ed and Lois Smart, wrote a book about their family’s ordeal. They and Elizabeth gave a number of interviews. Some reporters were sensitive in questioning Elizabeth about painful subjects. Others grilled her about the details of the time she spent with her captors, leaving her visibly upset. The Smarts authorized a made-for-television movie about Elizabeth’s kidnapping and eventual rescue.

* * *

On May 16, 2005, a man, a woman and a teenage boy were found brutally murdered inside their rural Idaho home. Two children, eight-year-old Shasta Groene and her nine-year-old brother Dylan, were missing. For six weeks, police and volunteers searched for the children; their names and descriptions were widely distributed in hopes someone would recognize them and alert authorities. Eventually, that is just what happened. A waitress in a Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, Denny’s restaurant recognized Shasta with a man who would later be identified as Joseph Duncan, a 42-year-old registered sex offender. Dylan’s body was eventually found in a Montana campsite.

As the story unfolded, it became evident that the brother and sister had been sexually abused by their kidnapper. Although the identities of sexual abuse victims are usually shielded in the media, many media outlets continued to identify Shasta Groene in this case, since the children’s identities had been widely circulated while the search efforts were ongoing.

* * *

On January 8, 2007, 13-year-old Ben Ownby disappeared while walking home from school in Beaufort, Missouri. A tip from a school friend led police on a frantic four-day search that ended unusually happily: the police discovered not only Ben, but another boy as well—15-year-old Shawn Hornbeck, who, four years earlier, had disappeared while riding his bike at the age of 11.

After the boys’ discovery, the families of both victims held press conferences at which the young victims were present and answered a few questions. Shawn and his parents appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, as did Ben’s parents. Shawn’s parents spoke to Winfrey about the mental changes their son had undergone and speculated that he had been sexually abused.

Media scrutiny on Shawn’s years of captivity became intense. Shawn had apparently had a certain amount of “freedom” while he was being held. (He played games and spent time with friends.) So why, analysts asked, didn’t he try to escape? Psychologists pondered the matter on air; one pundit even posited that Shawn preferred life with his kidnapper and had chosen to remain with him. Others cited the Stockholm syndrome in defending the young man for not attempting to escape years earlier.

Question: Should children who are thought to be the victims of sexual abuse ever be named in the media? What should be done about the continued use of names of kidnap victims who are later found to be sexual assault victims? Should use of their names be discontinued at that point?

WHO: Decision-makers in this case are reporters, editors/producers and management who have to weigh the potential to cause further harm to already-victimized minors against the desire to tell the whole story, pressure to improve ratings/circulation and pressure to beat other news organizations to the story. They are also under pressure from the public, which, accustomed to 24-hour, speed-of-light news availability, has come to expect immediate, detailed coverage of the big stories.

The stakeholders are obviously the children in question. These children have already been through more than most of us can even imagine. Is it a healing experience for them to share their stories with the world? Or will the scrutiny add further turmoil to their already-fractured lives, perhaps causing irreparable damage?

Other stakeholders include the children’s families, who have been through the wrenching ordeal of losing a child and are sometimes eager to share their joy at being reunited with their children and to thank those officials and volunteers who helped bring their children home. In the Smart and Hornbeck cases, the parents gave their consent for their minor children to be interviewed and were present during the interviews.

WHY: Does the charge to “seek the truth and report it” in the face of enormous public interest outweigh the potential for causing further harm to children who have already been victimized? It is a journalist’s job—and obligation—to tell compelling stories in detail. But is there ever a point when it is better for a journalist to step back, give the story’s subject her privacy, and, if necessary, tell the clamoring public to mind its own business? Even if the child declares that he wishes to speak in an interview or press conference, given the child’s age and what he has been through, is he really in a position to make that choice?

On the other hand, in the Smart and Hornbeck cases, the journalists had permission from the children’s parents to interview them. The children were apparently willing to be interviewed. The children or parents could have ended the interviews at any time.

In the Groene case, the child’s identity was already very well known, particularly in Idaho. It would have been impossible to remove her name from the news stories that had already been published, so referring to her by oblique descriptors would have seemed pointless at best, and disingenuous at worst. After all, you can’t un-name a name any more easily than you can un-ring a bell. Further, some journalists reasoned that it would be irresponsible to refrain from informing the public that the search for these children was, in fact, at an end.

The first guideline in the code of ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists is “seek the truth and report it.” But the second guideline is “minimize harm.” Items under that dictum include “avoid pandering to lurid curiosity” and “be cautious about identifying juvenile suspects or victims of sex crimes.” However, with words like “seek,” “minimize,” “avoid,” and “be cautious,” there is always room for interpretation. One can take caution, and then go ahead, if he or she truly believes it is the right thing to do, without having breached the code of ethics.

So the question remains: Which is more important, the obligation of the journalist to tell the story well, or the obligation of the journalist to minimize harm to the abused child?

HOW: Do you release the name of a child who is thought to have been abused? Do you interview the child? Increasingly, we are seeing instances of this scenario playing out in the media. A precedent has been set, so we may continue to see cases like this unless news organizations change their policies.

This issue is not black and white; it is a wide range of grays. Every case is different, and a journalist could certainly choose either course while remaining true to the SPJ code of ethics. In some cases, the best course of action might be to name the child, but refrain from publishing graphic details about the abuse the child endured. Perhaps in other cases, there is no pressing public interest for the child’s identity to be released, and his or her privacy is the utmost consideration.

Most importantly, journalists must closely examine their own motives. Whatever path they choose, they should be guided by professional ethics and never simply by a desire to be first with a detail that will increase ratings or circulation.

— By Amber Orand and Sara Stone, Baylor University

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