Creating a victim

Plot for a fair story may not be foolproof

Lines can be drawn to spare a person already hurt by a devious scheme.

By Howard Breuer

Howard Breuer is a reporter and bureau chief for The Middletown (CT) Press.

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

Source: FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 1, no. 10 (January 1990), p. 7.

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.

 

If Patricia Knizeski’s boyfriend’s devious plan had worked, The Middletown (CT) Press would have had no problem with revealing her name in a story.

She would have been dead.

As it turned out, Philip C. Vallieres, owner of a clothing store in the small town of Old Saybrook, had a plan that was doomed.

He wanted his girlfriend murdered so he could get $150,000 worth of insurance and assorted valuables, but his accountant, who he thought was a reliable middleman, tricked him into meeting an undercover cop posing as a professional hit man.

Police say the reputed hit man met Vallieres in an Old Saybrook parking lot on November 7, 1989, and wore a body microphone as Vallieres told him he wanted Knizeski killed. Later that day, Old Saybrook police charged Vallieres with criminal attempt to commit murder.

And two weeks later, I obtained a five-page affidavit written by the arresting officers.

Because the affidavit had just been unsealed by the Middlesex County Superior Court and the Press — which covers Old Saybrook and most of the rest of Middlesex County — is an afternoon daily, my story would be the first to relay the affidavit’s enticing details.

The affidavit revealed Knizeski’s name. But did that mean it belonged in my story?

My first thought was that it didn’t. Although she was never physically harmed, police said she had undergone counseling after she heard of the conspiracy. She seemed to be a victim, but I wasn’t sure.

I polled the editors.

News Editor Lucas Held didn’t want her name used, as we don’t normally print the names of crime victims.

Bill Nagler, a copy editor and former lawyer, called the story “incomplete without it. Unless you have a very good cause, you shouldn’t leave out such relevant information. There’s a potential for embarrassment, but it’s something the public has the right to know.”

Managing Editor Peter Gill had the final word, and that was to omit her name, since the paper doesn’t print the names of abuse victims, and this case seemed close enough to apply.

The Hartford Courant and New Haven Register, our a.m. competitors, also withheld Knizeski’s name, which Nagler feared wouldn’t happen.

According to Courant spokesman Dennis Schain, the Courant doesn’t name victims or potential victims. However, since Knizeski did not appear to be in danger of physical harm, the Courant gave her address, as I did.

“We had to draw the line somewhere in this case,” Schain explained. “So we released everything short of her name.”

New Haven Register reporter Paula Brackenbury wouldn’t reveal Knizeski’s name or workplace, which I revealed because it was outside our circulation area, although within the Register‘s.

“I never use a woman’s name when she’s a victim,” said Brackenbury. “Maybe because I’m a woman . . . I thought she had been through enough, and my editors agreed.”

But at the Pictorial Gazette, a twice-weekly community tabloid centered in Old Saybrook, editor Claudia Van Nes insisted that her reporter reveal Knizeski’s name.

“If it put her life in further danger I wouldn’t have used it,” she explained.

“But we’re a local paper in a little town where three-quarters of the people already knew who it was, and it would have made us seem naive if we didn’t use it.”

Knizeski’s attorney, Ed Walsh of New Haven, called that decision “abusive and shortsighted,” and said the publicity opened Knizeski to dangers Van Nes hadn’t considered. While Knizeski tried to not think about the alleged murder plot until the trial, her creditors and even her landlord called her to ask what had happened, Walsh said. She was shocked and hurt by every call, he said.

Walsh pointed out that Knizeski’s household valuables were revealed by the press along with her address, which he called another abuse of her rights.

Walsh and Van Nes said it was silly of the dailies to reveal where Knizeski lived and worked, but not her name. “By the time you go through all that, you might as well,” Van Nes argued.

“Even a 12-year-old would see how that’s wrong,” said Walsh. “By disclosing those things they’re disclosing her name . . . everybody can find out who it is.”

I stand by our paper’s decision to withhold Knizeski’s name. Gill said we ought to continue to withhold it as we cover the trial, unless she takes the stand and contradicts Vallieres’s defense.

I’m happy to go along with that.

But the next time I write a story that involves a victim, an intended victim, or anyone whose name merits protection, I’ll be much more cautious about reporting other facts that might give away that person’s identity. Reporters should be more consistent about that. 

 

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