Absent with no malice

Omitting part of the story for a reason

The newspaper’s goal was to protect the privacy of a sexually-abused child. But by not identifying her, were readers misled?

By Richard Robertson

Richard Robertson is investigations editor for The Arizona Republic, Phoenix.

Author bio information is from the time of article submission and may not be current.

Source: FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 2, no. 3 (June 1990), p. 4.

This case was produced for FineLine, a publication of Billy Goat Strut Publishing, 600 East Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky 40202. Reprinted with the permission of Billy Goat Strut Publishing. This case may be reproduced for classroom and research purposes. Publication of this case in electronic or printed form requires written permission from the publisher and Indiana University. An exception is granted for use in readers designed for specific academic courses.

 

Most news organizations don’t name or otherwise identify sex assault victims, particularly children. But, what if withholding the identity means telling an incomplete or distorted story? Or prevents both sides of a story being told?

Arizona Republic Managing Editor John Oppedahl struggled with those questions before deciding to withhold all identifying information about the stepdaughter of a Phoenix firefighter; the girl attempted suicide before it was discovered that her stepfather had molested her for four years.

The April 19 copyrighted story across the Republic‘s front page was titled “Child Molester Given Pension Deal.”

It described how the 19-year veteran firefighter had been given a one-year leave of absence to serve a prison sentence for child molesting and, afterward, being allowed to retire.

Outraged callers lit up phones at city hall, the fire department and radio talk shows asking why a child molester was allowed to keep his job and then retire on a taxpayer-financed pension.

What the story didn’t say was that the victim was the firefighter’s 14-year-old step-daughter and the arrangement — worked out at the urging of a state court judge — made it possible for the girl to get counseling under her step-father’s employee benefit program. Describing the details of the arrangement would identify the victim, Oppedahl concluded.

Fire Department officials were infuriated that the state’s largest newspaper decided to withhold their side of the story to protect the victim’s privacy.

Spokesman Steve Jensen likened it to being pummeled while your hands are tied behind your back.

Oppedahl said he understands the arguments and “46 percent of me agrees with them.”

“But, in most cases, I would not run the name of living sex crime victims. When you’re dealing with children you give them the benefit — even if it’s at the expense of adults,” Oppedahl said.

He recognized that leaving out the fire department’s explanation distorted the story by preventing the department officials from explaining their actions.

“In this case it was protecting the child at the expense of a big institution that will still be around in 10 years no matter what the outcome of this controversy.”

Jensen said the fire department wanted to tell its side of the story but also wanted to protect the victim’s privacy. Publicly, after the Republic‘s story broke, fire officials told angry callers that the victim was “a family member.”

Privately, they gave reporters details about the relationship and circumstances of the agreement — all of which was available in public records in the court where the firefighter was prosecuted.

“The information changed people’s reaction,” Jensen said. “The lack of that information framed the debate unfairly.” Phil Alvidrez, KTVK-TV news director, said when he read the Republic‘s story, he “couldn’t understand why the city did it.”

But, after his reporters heard the details from fire officials, “I still had concerns about how the city acted, but it was more understandable. Their heart appeared to be in the right place. It changed my feeling about the whole thing.”

Interestingly, KTVK didn’t share that information with its viewers. Alvidrez said the station decided to withhold the identifying information and instead not play the story prominently.

Al Macias, news director at KPNX-TV, said his station identified the girl as the firefighter’s stepdaughter in its first story, but subsequently referred to her as a “family member.”

“We faced the same dilemma (of how to protect the victim), but the information was really relevant. Without that information, people couldn’t understand why the fire department did what it did. It was not an easy decision,” Macias said.

The Republic‘s sister paper, The Phoenix Gazette, was also among the news media identifying the girl as a relative to explain the fire department’s arrangement. One story noted that the Republic had broken the story without including information about the relationship.

Gazette City Editor Dave Wagner said that in deciding whether his paper’s stories would include the identity, he asked whether the information was “something the reader ought to know to understand. Could we balance privacy and the reader’s need to know the full story?”

He concluded that it was important “to inform readers in the full light. They needed to understand that the victim would be twice penalized had the pension decision gone the other way.”

“That information made the difference between the public’s perception of good faith and bad faith by the fire department. 

The Gazette described the girl as being “in the circle of the firefighter’s relatives.”

Oppedahl’s decision created a problem for Republic columnist E. J. Montini, who wrote a column to explain why the case didn’t outrage him like it seemed to outrage everyone else.

The column described reasons for the arrangement and he identified the girl as “someone within the firefighter’s family.” But Oppedahl considered that identification too specific and said the column could not run.

Montini rewrote the column to say the pension deal was arranged “to help support his family and the victim.”

Leaving the explanation to the pension arrangement intact but separating the molester from his victim was acceptable to Oppedahl.

Subsequent Republic stories used Montini’s language. Those stories revealed other interesting aspects of the case: the firefighter had committed previous sex crimes, the girl’s natural mother had participated in the molestations and the city failed to explore alternatives for the girl’s counseling.

Oppedahl has no regrets about his decision despite being virtually alone on the issue among Phoenix news organizations.

“In hindsight, I’d do the same thing to protect the identity of the girl,” he said. “Obviously, the situation would be significantly changed if she consented to having her identity revealed. And it could change if court action had resulted and there was some compelling reason at that point to identify her that overcame traditional concern about identity.”