Naming a victim

When do you break your own rule?

Your news department doesn’t identify sex crime victims. But the victim’s name was used before the crime was revealed. Other news outlets are using his identity – and picture. Is there any reason to now withhold the name?

By Charles Kravetz

Charles Kravetz is senior executive producer of NewsCenter 5, WCVB-TV, Boston, MA.

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. 6 (September 1989), pp. 4,5.

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.

 

We have a simple rule at WCVB-TV: we don’t identify the victims of sexual crimes. Period. No exceptions. Sounds pretty straightforward. But in 1986 we broke our rule and to this day I’m uneasy about it.

Here’s the story. In January 1985, Providence police picked up a 56-year-old drifter named David Collins on a traffic violation. When they discovered an outstanding warrant for Collins on kidnapping in California, they raided his rundown rooming house and discovered a 13-year-old boy who had been missing for almost two years.

The discovery of the boy was a huge news story and we covered it extensively on NewsCenter 5, repeatedly showing his picture and using his name. After all, his picture had been on milk cartons across the country and authorities had been searching for him for almost two years. But several days after the boy was found, police charged Collins with multiple counts of sexual abuse of the youngster. The boy had apparently survived a nightmarish ordeal of daily sexual assaults.

If we had known about the sex charges earlier, we would never have identified the boy. But it was too late now to conceal his identity, or so it seemed to most people in the newsroom.

The boy returned to California and the story disappeared from the newspapers and newscasts. More than a year later, David Collins went to trial on kidnapping and sexual assault charges. The star witness for the prosecution: the boy he kidnapped, now 14 years old.

Cameras were allowed in the court but I argued that we shouldn’t show the boy’s face or use his name. After all, what more graphic instance of sexual abuse could there be. Immediately, our newsroom divided on the issue.

“Come on,” the pragmatists complained, “this kid is better known than the governor. There’s no point in protecting his identity now. It’s too late.”

“It’s the principle,” I argued. “The rule’s there to minimize trauma to the victims of these crimes. This boy was in the news over a year ago. Most people can’t remember a name from a week ago. We’ll just compound his pain by identifying him all over again.”

The battle intensified as the court appearance of the boy approached. I remember a group of us huddled around a bank of monitors watching our competitors’ reports on the upcoming trial. The boy’s face and name were everywhere. Apparently, I thought, there is no great ethical debate underway across town.

One of our producers looked at me and asked, “What’s it going to accomplish? Everyone else is using his name and picture. It’s a legitimate exception to the rule. It was unavoidable when we first identified him so there’s no point in trying to conceal his identity now.”

“Is ‘everyone else’ going to make our decision for us?” I asked. I personally didn’t care what our competition was doing. From my perspective, our choice was clear. We could compound our initial error by continuing to identify the victim or we could follow our rule and conceal his identity. It was as simple as that.

I said, follow the rule.

In the end I lost the battle. We used his name and picture. Three years later I’m still unsettled by it. Do I come across as some sort of purist, unable to see shades of gray in a business that rarely deals in black and white? I hope not. I understand that there are reasonable exceptions to some rules. But in this case, at least, I think we missed a chance to rise above the crowd, to acknowledge that our work can hurt and stigmatize innocent people. I don’t blame us or anyone else for initially identifying this young victim. But I blame us for consciously repeating the error, for acting as if the circumstances gave us license to break our own rule and that just because everyone else did it, we should too.

The sun broke through the window blinds of a packed Providence courtroom on March 21, 1986. A blushing and obviously nervous teenager rocked back and forth in the witness box as he told the court and about a million TV viewers about having oral sex with David Collins every day for almost two years. He looked awkward in his navy blue sport jacket and pale blue tie as he described watching pornographic pictures with other young boys caught along the way in David Collins’ perverse web. He spoke quietly in front of the courtroom and the TV camera, describing the brainwashing he endured to make him fear running away. And throughout it all, he appeared an extraordinarily naive and innocent child, unclear of why this had happened to him and unaware of how his terrible tale had captured the attention of the outside world.