John Smith is charged with raping Jane Doe (fictitious names). Should we use the names in the newspaper?
I promised in last week's column to revisit the decisions we make about what to publish in reporting the news.
The answer to the question above: We would use the name of the person charged with rape. We would not use the name of the victim. Like most news media, we do not use names of victims of sex crimes unless we interview them and have full permission to identify them, or unless they are homicide victims.
But we do publish names of other crime victims, depending on the circumstances and the crime. Police reports, which often include names and addresses, are public records. We will probably publish that information unless we see compelling reasons not to. Sex crime victims have long been included among those we do not name.
We also withhold the names of juveniles unless they are charged as adults in crimes. We withhold the names of victims of a crime who would be in danger if their names were revealed. We do not use the name of someone who, for example, may be the driver of a vehicle that caused a death if it was not the fault of that driver, unless that driver dies. We don't report on suicides, unless they involve a well-known local person or if the suicide is done in a public manner or place.
This same reasoning would apply to the use of actual addresses where crimes are committed. Does the specific address reveal the name of someone we would not want named? Or would it place the residents of that address in danger?
Back to the first question. What if the woman accusing the man of rape is making it up? If she were named, would that help prevent such false accusations? Many journalists believe naming names is essential in the commitment to accuracy, credibility and fairness.
And what about photos? People can be implicated, embarrassed or offended by photos as much as words. Last week, the issue was an accident photo showing a blue tarp on the ground. The photo caption said the body of the driver of the car was under the tarp. Many readers were upset we used that photo. Was it because the victim was a juvenile?
As I mentioned in last week's column, our policy is not to use local photos that show bodies. However, we have used photos in which a body is hidden by a covering. Is that right or wrong? It's a part of the reality of the tragedy being reported. Should we not have run a picture of the smashed car? Of the bark scraped off a tree that was hit by a car in a fatal accident? Powerful images can also be painful to some.
We really do care what readers think and how what we do affects them.
But our job is not to tailor our journalistic responsibilities to keep from ever offending anyone. If we did that, we would be doing a disservice to the public as a whole. News must be reported, good or bad. People are killed, arrested, humiliated and endangered every day. The public wants to know and needs to know. Our job is to report.
We'll continue to do our best to be sensitive and careful. But there will always be someone who will not be happy with our decisions. I want you to know we don't make decisions without considering all the potential effects they may have. My job is to listen to your complaints and suggestions and to make sure we continue to be accountable for what we report and how.