Names make news

One newspaper debates when and why

Three college students had been charged with a crime and named in the newspaper. What should the newspaper do when the grand jury does not indict them?

By David B. Offer

David B. Offer is editor of The Newport (RI) Daily News.

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. 6.

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.

 

Many editors and newspaper readers agree that the names of the victims of sex crimes should not be published. There is nearly no room for argument.

But the issue came up in the newsroom of The Newport (RI) Daily News in June after a grand jury decided not to indict three local college students who had been charged with the gang rape of another student.

The woman testified before the grand jury; the men did not. As the men had not denied having sex with the woman, apparently the grand jury concluded that the woman was a willing participant.

At our regular morning news meeting, I said the woman’s name should no longer be withheld as she could no longer be considered a victim. After all, I said, The Daily News had published the names of the men, along with allegations that they were rapists, when they were arrested, when they were released on bail and when they were suspended by the college.

In light of the grand jury decision, would not fairness require printing the name of their accuser?

Reporter M. Catherine Callahan, who had covered the case, argued that the technical, legal decision of the grand jury did not change the real and psychological problem of the woman, who felt victimized even if the case could not be proved in court.

It would be outrageous for the newspaper to further harm the woman, Callahan said.

Would it become policy to use the names of accusers any time a case was dismissed or an accused person found not guilty? Callahan asked.

Callahan said she felt so strongly about the issue that she did not want her byline on the story if I insisted on using the woman’s name.

City Editor Sarah Jenkins, who had generally agreed with my earlier comments, said she had come to agree with Callahan.

I was making the case much too “black and white,” Jenkins said, but evidence in sexual assault cases is often sketchy or open to interpretation, and the pressure on women to keep silent is already much too strong.

Newspaper policy has to include enough “grays” to allow us to look at the situation in an individual case, she said.

Given the strong feelings of two colleagues for whom I have great respect, I relented and the name was not used.

The original charges had been reported on Page 1, so the grand jury action dismissing the case also was given front page display.

I wrote about the issue in my weekly “Editors Report” column, telling readers of my concern for the three men, who I felt were victims, too. They had been charged with a vile offense and held up to public view. A grand jury had listened to the evidence and determined that the crime did not take place.

Were we fair to them? I asked.

I expected that my original proposal to name the woman would cause anger in the community.

But the reaction was muted.

I received a few telephone calls, none unpleasant, all agreeing that the name should not have been printed, and all pleased that the matter had been presented for readers to ponder.

There was not a large volume of mail, and it, too, was supportive.

Two writers identified themselves as rape counselors. One said that “you are very fortunate to have two wise and sensitive women on your staff” and they “are fortunate to have an open-minded person such as yourself as editor.”

Another writer said there were few false rape reports; the greater problem is that rape is underreported.

“Ultimately, the decision to publish or not publish names must be based upon the best alternative, or one which does the least damage,” she said. “I strongly believe that should The Newport Daily News decide to publish the names of victims of sexual assault whose cases are proved unfounded many, many victims who would have had the courage to report assaults will not report them because of the risk of media exposure.”

Perhaps the most interesting letter came from a member of the grand jury. She called the case “far from black and white.”

We should not have printed the woman’s name, she said, but she said she felt even more strongly that the men’s names should not have been printed either, even though they had been charged with a horrible crime.

“There should be fairness on both sides,” she wrote.

I can’t agree with the grand juror. A newspaper must inform its readers when people are charged with crimes. And we must make it clear when cases are dismissed.

I am convinced that we will not use the names of victims, even when cases are dismissed, unless they are charged with filing false crime reports, which is a significant crime itself.

That has not happened here, but if it does, I’m sure it will cause a major debate in our newsroom.

 

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