Naming Victims of Sex Crimes in Mass Media

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Reporting on sex crimes has always been a touchy subject. The ethics case I’ll be discussing is about “Naming Victims of Sex Crimes.” The case talks about a 14-year-old girl, Elizabeth Smart, getting abducted from her home back in 2002. Elizabeth’s parents worked with the media to create more visibility for the case which sparked a lot of public interest in why exactly it happened. Months later, her younger sister was able to trace back details of that night and said the abductor’s voice sounded like someone their family knew. This was the major detail that ultimately led to Elizabeth’s rescue. The case was a major media story nationwide. Her expected kidnappers were a man and woman and were charged with multiple crimes, including sexual assault. The trial was postponed multiple times because the suspects were deemed “mentally unfit” to be on trial. Finally in November, the woman finally came forward and pleaded guilty and testified against the man. He was sentenced to fifteen years in prison. After Elizabeth returned home, her parents wrote a book about the entire experience. The three of them gave many interviews to share their stories. Some reporters were very sensitive and careful with what they were asking Elizabeth not wanting to make her uncomfortable or upset. Other reporters used pressing and aggressive questions to know more details. For example, a reporter asked her about the details of her encounters with the kidnappers The Smart family then authorized a movie about Elizabeth’s kidnapping as well as rescue. In this case, regarding principle, the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics comes in to play.

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First, to seek truth and report it, I find this to definitely be important in this case. In my opinion, however, it was not used in the correct way at all. If it were me, I would have never used her name, and I would definitely use the two kidnapper’s names. The victim, who is a minor, had her name publicized. The kidnappers did not. Part of the truth here is missing. Why weren’t the kidnappers named and why were their identities protected when they did something so awful? The way this case was portrayed was the opposite of how it should have been. Elizabeth’s name should not have been used. The kidnappers’ names definitely should have. These reporters, editors and producers are causing much more harm than good and these are the ones who are decision-makers. I understand the desire to tell the whole story as completely and accurately as possible, but already-victimized kid will potentially be even more scarred. I understand the news station’s goal is to please the public and get viewers. They want to give the viewers what they want and for them to stay interested and engaged, so they feel like they need to include this girl’s name. The main stakeholders are the children followed by their families involved in sexual assault cases. Their healing stories shouldn’t be publicized for the world with their names all over them. They’ve already been through more than we can imagine. Even if the child agrees to have his or her name included in the story, is he or she really in the position of making that decision? Their parents should make that decision for them since it does and will have a huge effect on their child for the rest of his or her life. In this case specifically, according to Society of Professional Journalists, “it would have been impossible to remove her name from the news stories that had already been published, so referring to her by oblique descriptions would have seemed pointless at best, and disingenuous at worst.”

I understand the claim SPJ is making, however, before the story became known, they could’ve done more to protect her identity. The reporters did seek truth and report it. As for minimizing harm, this ties in to my previous point. Her identity and her horrible experience are completely publicized for everyone to know which does not minimize harm. Her case was put out there and well known far before she was able to talk about it herself. The reporter wasn’t able to act independently, because it was most likely their news director or producer’s call on what to do. But if the reporter acted independently and stuck to his or her values and did what was right, he or she would’ve known not to use her name before the story spread. I would talk to the producer and reporter directly and explain to them why this could be damaging to the girl, especially since the release happened way before she agreed to an interview.

As for being accountable and transparent, I could see why it would be important for them to release her full name, but I wouldn’t do that. The audience should be able to understand why the station wouldn’t do that without losing any credibility. I know the audience is interested and wants to know everything when it comes to these types of stories, but why not just release the kidnappers name when that wasn’t even done in the first place? The frameworks of principle from the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics should be taken into account in every situation. It’s important not only to be accurate and transparent, but morally right in the case. I see how it’s too late to do anything about releasing a name when it was just a kidnapping case at first then was later discovered as a sexual assault case, but that isn’t always how it ends up.

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