It’s interesting to hear non-journalists critique the coverage of their local news outlets. Often, they’re convinced that reporters and editors make decisions based on how many papers they can sell. Or they think that journalists are out to “get” people by publishing the embarrassing details of their lives.
In my work with SPJ, an organization largely devoted to examining ethical issues, I find that much thought and debate goes into editorial decisions and newsroom policies – especially when those decisions can have adverse effects on the people we cover.
In the September issue, we ran a story about the difficulties in deciding whether to publish the names of juvenile victims. There is no universal policy on how to treat these young victims, and editors often must decide on a case-by-case basis whether or not to reveal a child’s identity.
In this issue, we look at a similarly difficult decision: the naming of rape victims. Unlike covering children, most newsrooms have standard policies to always withhold the names of rape victims. But, as the story on Page 8 illustrates, editors are beginning to question those policies. Society’s view of rape victims has changed during the past 20 years, and many editors – as well as some of the victims themselves – are asking whether anonymity is always the best way to address the situation.
On Page 36, a member of SPJ’s Ethics Committee looks at rape coverage from another perspective. Ted Frederickson cites the recent coverage of a high-profile rape case in Kansas, and he questions a newspaper’s decision to indirectly identify the victim of the rape. In this instance, he argues, the benefits of identifying the woman did not justify the harm done to her.
These two stories may seem to contradict each other; the first one describes editors moving away from a “never name” approach, while the second criticizes a paper for deciding to identify a victim. But both stories emphasize the importance of reporters and editors weighing the impacts of their decisions.
Do the benefits of using that name outweigh the damage it could do to the victim? This debate is only one part of the balancing act that goes into each day’s paper or newscast. There are rarely easy answers to these questions, and the journalists who rise to the challenge of addressing them deserve credit for the difficult decisions they have to make.
Jeff Mohl is the editor of Quill.
In the June 2002 issue of Quill, we incorrectly listed The Chicago Reader as the winner of the SDX Award for Public Service in Newsletter Journalism. The actual winner is The Chicago Reporter. We regret the error.