WASHINGTON — Despite flak from the community, editors with The Daily Evergreen stand by their decision to withhold the name of a fraternity in a story to protect the identity of a sexual assault victim.
“While the public would want to know the name of the fraternity, understandably, at that point in time our bigger concern was protecting the identity of the victim and making sure that she wasn’t victimized or she wasn’t harassed, or really that nobody was able to figure out who she was at that point in time,” said Nathan Howard, editor-in-chief of the student newspaper at Washington State University.
On Oct. 1, the Evergreen reported on an alleged rape that took place at a fraternity house the previous weekend, but omitted the fraternity’s name. Howard published a letter from the editor the next day explaining why the Evergreen did not publish the name.
“While the name of the fraternity involved exists as accessible public record and may have provided further information to you, our readers, the victim’s safety comes first,” he wrote. “The Daily Evergreen will seek the truth and report it anytime public safety is a concern. However, situations involving the privacy of victims warrant extra caution.”
The decision angered some readers, while others praised their actions to protect the victim until more information was available.
On Oct. 3, a story ran with the name of the fraternity after a search warrant had been issued against the university’s Delta Chi chapter. Howard said he felt comfortable releasing the name after law officials were more involved with the allegation.
“For a search warrant to be executed, a judge has to sign off on it and say there’s probable cause,” he said. “So for me, that was an indicator that this was an allegation that was brought to the police and it wasn’t just something that they were brushing off, they were looking into it.”
The Evergreen’s initial decision to withhold the name resulted in criticism on social media, which was furthered after the Evergreen deleted Facebook posts that tried to identify the fraternity.
“The Evergreen‘s policy in addressing the privacy of sexual assault victims is in place to minimize harm and protect all parties in an often stigmatized process,” the newspaper wrote on its page. “Any future posts containing potentially identifying information will be removed and repeat offenders of this policy will be blocked.”
Howard said it’s not common practice for the Evergreen to delete user comments. But after talking to Dominique Wald, web manager, and Candace Baltz, director of student media and adviser to the Evergreen, he decided it was the best decision.
“I’ve worked at the Evergreen for two years and we’ve only ever deleted three comments on our Facebook, and in those scenarios it’s been as a harassment or it’s been someone trying to identify somebody that it’s not safe to identify like in this scenario,” he said.
Some readers commented on the same post in agreement to the Evergreen’s decision, while others questioned both the decision to withhold the name and the to delete comments.
“[C]ensoring the comments?” one user wrote. “Can you or your advisor state why you withhold this information but not other information?”
Howard and Baltz said some of the critical comments were from the newspaper’s alumni.
“It can be a hard pill to swallow when people who are in the industry, or who were previously in the industry, come back and question your decision, but I think that’s the nature of media,” Howard said. “Anytime that you make a public decision like this you almost want people to question it, that’s how you know you’re doing a good job and you’re starting the conversation.”
Andrew Seaman, Ethics Committee chair at the Society for Professional Journalists, recognized that the Evergreen’s decision to protect the victim by withholding the fraternity’s name were in good intentions, but that the decision was overly cautious.
“From reading the article, the letter and then the Facebook post, I don’t necessarily see why naming the fraternity would necessarily identify the victim or anything like that, because it is where an apparent crime took place,” he said. “So in my mind there should be no reason not to publish the name of the fraternity because if it is a suspected crime scene, I’m sure the name is well-known and the university may be taking actions against the fraternity.”
Seaman said withholding the name of a victim, not the names of fraternities or other similar organizations, is standard practice in reporting, and can be found in the SPJ’s Code of Ethics.
Another potential problem Seamen saw with omitting the name is that it can distract readers from the story, as well as create speculation to where exactly a crime occurred.
“You also may create speculation and rumors because more information tends to stop rumors and speculation,” he said.
When it comes to future events similar to this one, both Howard and Baltz have said the decision to run or not run information is decided on a case by case basis.
“You can’t follow one protocol and expect that shoe to fit every single time, and in this situation I was really proud of the students for considering all of the different elements and all of the different ramifications for their decision to provide information or withhold information,” Baltz said. “And so I think in this situation… they made the right one.”
Contact SPLC staff writer Michael Bragg by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 119.