A female student at asmall West Virginia college accuses three basketball players of sexual assault.
Her name makes noappearance in any newspapers; the names of her alleged attackers, however, aresplattered across regional front pages. They appear again when those same menare kicked off their basketball team and expelled.
More than a yearlater, the woman sits atop a witness stand and admits she made the whole thingup.
What happened in the1980s at Salem College is rare, said Society of Professional Journalists EthicsChairman Kevin Smith, who worked in the area at the time as a journalist, butcollege papers are still operating largely under the same model that cost thosethree men their reputations.
The ethics of crimereporting are slippery, subjective and hard to define. Few stories have more atstake than those that deal with life and death, guilt and innocence. Thedecision-making — from how to word allegations to what information to includeor exclude in a crime blotter item — is something that requires ethicaldiscussion and dissection.
Ironically, the crimebeat is often relegated to those reporters lowest in the newsroom food chain.
“I think that crimereporting is one of the most difficult things to do,” said Smith, who teachesjournalism at James Madison University. “It’s one of the hardest things tocover, and, for whatever reason, they take the youngest people and put them inthat situation.”
The art of crime newsstems from the intense attention to detail required, Smith said. A transposedletter or omitted initial can mean an innocent person is essentially accused ofa crime.
“Sometimes we approachthem fairly loose,” Smith said.
On the blotter
Every front page willsee its fair share of news stories on criminal activity. Often, however, it’swhat’s inside the paper that gets the most eyeballs. Appearing every day, oncea week or just online, the campus crime blotter remains a popular source ofcommunity knowledge, whether it’s seeing who was caught brawling outside a baror pinpointing where thefts are happening around town.
When it comes toinforming the campus community about criminal activity, deciding what detailsto include can be nearly as important as getting the information right.
GeorgetownUniversity’s The Hoya newspaper runs a crime blotter in everyFriday’s edition. Included are alleged crimes, locations, times reported and aquick one- to two-sentence summary of the report.
Hoya Editor-in-Chief Eamon O’Conner said the blotteris part of the newspaper’s duty to its campus.
“We publish thecomplete blotter that the Department of Public Safety provides us each weekbecause we take it as our responsibility to inform the community of allinstances of crime on campus — regardless of whether or not we write a story onit, and even if the reports are available on the DPS website, too,” he said.
On the other coast,UCLA’s The Daily Bruin compiles incidents for Crimewatch, a graphicmap of police reports in the campus area, instead of a traditional blotter.
Visually, Crimewatchmakes it easier for students to be aware of incidents, said editor-in-chiefLauren Jow, and it also helps the paper spot trends in and hotspots of criminalactivity.
What’s in a name?
Both Jow and O’Connersaid their papers omit names from these everyday crime reports. They don’t runthe names of victims – and they also don’t run the names of suspects, somethingthat sets them apart from many other publications.
The danger posed tocampus by someone caught for public intoxication is minimal; identifyingsuspects is likely more embarrassing than informative in these situations. Butthat’s not a school of thought shared by everyone.
As to whether hispaper runs the name of a criminal suspect in a full news story, it’s a decisionthat depends on the severity of the charge, O’Conner said.
“We’re not in thebusiness of causing irreparable harm to someone’s image,” he said.
For Jow, the decisionon whether to run a suspect’s name depends on the potential harm to otherstudents and staff on campus. Those accused of violence are more likely to seetheir names in print.
In instances ofalleged sexual assault or incidents that pose “greater danger to the public,” Bruin policy is to leave out the name of the victim, but run the identity of thesuspect.
“Our main priority isthe safety of our campus community,” Jow said.
That practice ofkeeping alleged sexual assault victims anonymous is the widely acceptedstandard at both collegiate and professional papers; but newsrooms should havea discussion about whether it’s the right policy, said Geneva Overholser,director of USC’s Annenberg School of Journalism.
During her time aseditor of the Des MoinesRegister in the late ‘80s,Overholser began asking victims of sexual assault to come forward and identifythemselves, in hopes of overcoming the stigma attached to rape.
The result was aPulitzer Prize for the paper and an ongoing discussion about the ethics ofidentification.
“We should be awarethat in not following our normal practices in naming adult victims of crimes oradults bringing charges, we should ask if we are contributing to the notionthat rape was so unmentionable that people ought to hide in that dark corner,” Overholsersaid.
In other words, thehiding of alleged rape victims may actually feed the stigma that they should beashamed. Furthermore, in the digital age, newspapers are no longer gatekeepers.Overholser uses the example of the 2004 rape accusations against Los AngelesLakers player Kobe Bryant to illustrate the point that victims’ names arelikely to surface and, when they do, at the hands of “more unsavory people.”
“There were people onthe Internet who were big Kobe Bryant fans who were scurrilous in defamingher,” she said. “Meanwhile, the editor of The Denver Post is proudlynoting he’s protecting her.”
Not only is there anargument to be had about whether anonymity protects alleged victims, but alsowhether it is a journalist’s job to shield them.
“What gives us thiswisdom as journalists to determine who needs our protection?” Overholser said.“To me, the major question is why any journalist would be comfortable taking astand, which seems to indicate that the journalist understands who needs protection,when there has been no judgment in court?”
Points of contention
On the Georgetowncampus, student editors contend campus secrecy leaves them with little say whenit comes to publicizing the names of student sexual assault suspects.
In an Oct. 25editorial, The Hoya discussed what it deemed a lack of seriousnesson campus when it comes to discussing sexual violence. The university’sdisciplinary policy is cited as one of the factors in creating a “relaxedattitude about sexual violence.”
The student conductcode states that, generally, only the person accused of a violation is told ofthe case’s outcome. However, in certain cases the alleged victim will also beinformed — provided they sign a non-disclosure agreement. That requirementdoes not apply in sexual assault cases, but the Hoyaargues the policy is problematic anyway.
“Perhaps if assailantsknew their names could be made public, they would be less likely to evenconsider committing a sexual crime in the first place.”
O’Conner said the policyis “largely a PR move” for the university.
However, Rachel Pugh,a spokeswoman for the university, said the editorial is inaccurate and citedthe confidentiality exception in the student conduct code for sexual assaultcases.
The paper’s broaderconcern, stated by both O’Conner and the editorial, revolves around a perceivedtrivialization of certain crimes.
The policy acts as aprotection for those accused and not as a deterrent for the behavior, O’Connersaid.
But naming suspects asa deterrent has its own ethical considerations, even in lesser offenses thanviolent or sexual crimes.
The potentialconsequences of identifying those accused of crimes are “far-reaching and, inthis high-tech world, forever,” said Ivan Dominguez, a spokesman for the National Association ofCriminal Defense Lawyers.
“We know many peopleout there, the moment they see someone arrested or charged, they decide intheir own mind that person is guilty,” Dominguez said.
Dominguez refers tothe practice of running mug shots of arrested individuals — without anaccompanying story — on newspaper websites; but the consequences ofidentification apply to all instances, including blotter items and crimestories.
“Apart from neverreally being able to scrub that perception from all the minds of all thosewho’ve seen that posted, you’ve got the very real consequence of … you werewrongfully arrested, (and) you’re going to apply for a job somewhere and neverknow that they ran your name through Google and made a decision based uponthings they saw,” he said.
The importance of the follow-up
What happens when theperson accused of a crime is exonerated?
A secondary story onthe outcome of the case can be just as important — and fair — as the initialreports. But Smith says many newspapers have spotty records when it comes tofollowing up with the fate of the alleged, which Smith calls “one of the greatcollapses of reporting.”
“It’s amazing to methat you can report a crime, and you can report someone having been arrested,but if the case is thrown out, we do not exonerate that person’s behavior onthe front pages of the paper,” he said.
That lack of follow-upcan be of dire consequence to a suspect who’s been named.
“As we all know, we’renot so famous in the journalism world for getting back on stories and sayingwith equally prominent play, ‘It turns out this guy was not found guilty,’”Overholser said.
For their part,student journalists like Jow and O’Conner recognize this inequality ofcoverage.
Jow said she and herstaff always make an effort to report that charges were dropped, especially forcrimes that warranted a full article as opposed to a spot on Crimewatch.
The follow-up iscrucial for that person’s reputation, she said.
But the lapse inreporting doesn’t stop with neglecting to acknowledge dropped charges, Smithsaid. In the effort to be impartial and fair, an acquittal or exonerationshould receive the same weight as allegations, he said.
“Instead, it’s usuallytwo to three paragraphs in one column under a three-deck (headline),” he said.“That’s a legitimate complaint.”
Discuss, then publish
Journalism is abalancing act, and the scales do not always tip in favor of “innocent untilproven guilty.”
When deciding whatinformation should be made public about victims and those accused of crimes —no matter how large or small — experts say each newsroom should have an ethicaldiscussion to weigh the potential harm against the benefit.
There is a balance tobe struck between the public’s right to know, the victim’s right to privacy andthe accused’s right to a fair trial.
“To me, it’s a matterof having a discussion of what’s appropriate,” Smith said. “I think you have totake a look at your community standards.”
Each crime storyinvolves ample deliberation on the value of publishing details, O’Conner said.
Overholser’s advice tocollege editors, who live and work in a “charged environment,” lies inconsideration for all sides, including the perspectives of victims but alsothose of the accused.
“The main thing I wantthem to think about is these questions that I’m raising that I don’t think getconsidered enough,” she said. “I do want them to think about the particularstigma attached to women, so unfairly and cruelly and ignorantly … I don’t reallyfeel inclined to tell people what to do, but I do want them to think.”
More than anything,consistency is key for judicious news judgment.
“I think that it’simportant for every newspaper to have some policy or understanding,” Smithsaid. “You need to know and be consistent.”
SIDEBAR: A Daily dose of the funnies
There are otherethical decisions to be had when it comes to crime, including just what to putat the top of the page.
The studentjournalists at the The MichiganDaily have taken a slightlydifferent approach when reporting criminal activity.
Every day on Page 2 ofthe print paper, the crime report takes center stage. While the blurbsthemselves are often mundane or inconsequential, the headlines atop them arewhat make them unique.
“Fire gets canned,” The Daily reported Oct. 24. “Trailer trauma” and “Inappropriate drunk man” marked theedition 10 days earlier.
“We do try to doattention-grabbing headlines,” said editor-in-chief Stephanie Steinberg. “Thecrimes themselves aren’t really funny, but the headlines are.”
This semester,Steinberg began the Crime Report blog on the newspaper’s website. The contentis identical to what runs on Page 2, but now the blotter blurbs — culled fromDepartment of Public Safety incident logs — are given more prominence online.
Previously, the crimereports had been lumped in with the news story on The Daily’s The Wire blog.
The Crime Report is apopular feature, and Steinberg said that stems from an understanding betweenthe paper and its campus audience — though the headline may be intongue-and-cheek, the story is not making light of the incidents reportedtherein.
That said, every nowand then reporters take the joke a little too far.
“I will change a lotof them if they’re just too inappropriate or just too out there,” Steinbergsaid. “Sometimes our reporters go a little crazy. But we try to keep them to acertain standard.”
By Nicole Hill, SPLC staff writer