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Monday, Mar. 2, 2015

Difficult decisions editors make

Thursday, February 5, 2004

Managing Editor

Question: Should a newspaper publish the name of someone arrested for rape?

I asked the question to a group of persons who, in some professional or volunteer capacity, confront the issue of domestic abuse. The session, held recently at Highland City Hall, was organized by Donna Soliday, outreach coordinator of Ozark Family Development Center in Highland. It was the first meeting of the Coordinated Community Response team Soliday is organizing.

The group included a domestic violence investigator with the sheriff's department, a case worker with the Department of Human Services, a high school counselor, a police sergeant, a deputy circuit clerk, a health department administrator, a home health nurse, a mayor, a crisis pregnancy counselor, a domestic abuse support group facilitator, a court advocate, a domestic abuse counselor and others.

The question elicited thoughtful responses.

Yes, said one, the newspaper should publish the name of someone accused of rape because he poses a threat to others. And, said another, he deserves the embarrassment.

No, said another, the newspaper should not publish his name because it would destroy his reputation and he might be innocent.

We moved on to other questions:

Should we publish the name of someone arrested for incest?

How about the name of someone arrested for domestic abuse?

Should we publish the name of the victim of rape, incest or domestic abuse?

Should we publish an anonymous letter to the editor from a victim of rape, incest or domestic abuse?

Should we publish the names of sex offenders released into the community?

As the group discussed the questions they reached a general consensus about each one. As I had hoped, they went through the same thought process we at the newspaper had gone through to develop our publishing policies.

Those policies were not developed through any formal process, but by wrestling with the issues as they came up. Some of the considerations we used in answering the questions follow:

* Does our judicial system, with its presumption of "innocent until proven guilty," require us, or at least compel us, to leave out names of the accused until they are convicted?

* Would publication of names, charges, crime details or quotes from investigators hinder the prosecution of the guilty?

* Would publication of the same information hinder the defense of the innocent?

* Would publication of names of those arrested for rape, incest or domestic abuse identify victims by association and would this cause unnecessary pain or embarrassment to victims?

* Would publication of the names of those who accuse others of rape serve the public's right to complete and accurate information? Would it reduce the number of false accusations? Would it make actual rape victims less likely to report their crimes?

* Would publication of the names of sex offenders released into the community needlessly hurt those who have paid their price to society and are trying to get their lives back together?

* The high rate of recidivism of sex offenders prompted federal law to create sex offender registries and require law enforcement agencies to notify neighbors when sex offenders move into a community. Does this give us a moral obligation, for the sake of public safety, to publish those names?

The group assembled, through free exchange of ideas gleaned from cumulative decades of experience, arrived at conclusions remarkably in line with our actual policies. And I think it shows the common sense that dictates the policies of most newspapers. Our policies follow:

1) We do not publish names of victims of rape, incest or domestic violence. Our right to publish and the public's right to know do not outweigh the victim's right to be free from additional pain and embarrassment.

While that policy is common among newspaper, it is not universal. The Des Moines Register became the first major newspaper to start publishing names of rape victims (referred to as those who accuse others of rape) in 1989, citing the public's right to know. A few other newspapers adopted the same policy. Register Editor Geneva Overholser, attempting to justify her decision, wrote:

"(N)aming names is an essential part of the commitment to accuracy, credibility, and fairness. This practice frequently brings pain to individuals; truth-telling does have its victims. My own view is that recovery from difficult times, like journalism, is abetted by openness and hampered by secrecy. But the larger point is this: Openness serves society as a whole. It serves enlightenment and understanding and progress. And it serves the criminal justice system."

To my ears, this smug pretense of journalistic purity sheds light on why our profession is held in such low regard by so many. I'm relieved there was a backlash against the policy from other journalists. Most newspapers still do not publish the names of "those who accuse others of rape."

2) We do not publish the names of those arrested for incest because that could identify the victims by association. The privacy needs of the victims outweighs the need to expose the perpetrators. Roundtable discussions with other publishers suggests that most newspapers do not make a distinction between rape and incest in their publishing policies.

3) We do publish the name of someone arrested for rape, despite the possibility he might be innocent because the physical evidence police must gather before making the charge makes false charges rare (the sex crime investigator confirmed this). Still, we are careful to make it clear the crime is merely alleged until it is proven in court.

We know of another Arkansas newspaper that never publishes the name of anyone charged with any crime, from speeding to murder, until the accused is convicted. I understand and appreciate their policy; journalists should be somewhat skeptical of anyone in authority and, when writing an arrest story, always consider the possibility the accused might be innocent. But we think the public's right to know compels us to publish the charges. We also recognize our own obligation to tell the public if the accused is acquitted.

We have observed that the likelihood of someone being falsely charged with rape is not nearly as great as the likelihood of a rapist escaping charges altogether.

4) We do not publish anonymous letters to the editor. We reserve the right to break our own rule requiring the name (just as we occasionally allow letters longer than the word limit), but I have yet to see a letter that I thought merited anonymity.

5) Regarding sex offenders released into the community, our policy is still developing. We polled editors throughout North America through the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors and found insightful but varied responses.

We did publish, one time, a list of the most serious (Level 3) offenders released in Sharp, Fulton and Izard counties last year when those lists first became public. But we have not settled on a formal policy for the future. We welcome input from our readers.

6) We do not publish accusations of rape, incest or domestic abuse when our source is not official, even if it is a victim who makes the accusation. We do not publish accusations until they become criminal charges and we see police reports.

I wish there was a foolproof policy that served the public's right to know while ensuring justice for both victims and the guilty. I don't think such a policy exists, but it is what we strive for. We readily acknowledge we have not always gotten it right.

I thought our readers should know why we publish what we publish and, in some case, why we don't.