Two stories published on the same day in September in my local daily, The Lawrence (Kansas) Journal-World, left me wondering whether journalism ethics are shunted aside when violence and sex are mixed with powerful and famous people in the classic tabloid recipe for attracting readers.
The lead story on the second front page informed readers that pop singer Britney Spears “got it on” with her then-but-now-ex-boyfriend, ‘N Sync singer Justin Timberlake (or so HE says.)
The lead story in the local section reported that the director of the Kansas Water Office was charged with a brutal rape, identifying the victim as his sister-in-law.
Both stories had the potential to hurt the women involved. Both were arguably newsworthy or at least of interest to readers. Both reflected the tension between two of the guiding principles in the SPJ Code of Ethics: “Seek Truth and Report It” and “Minimize Harm.”
Because news stories can simultaneously reveal important truths and hurt people, journalists pondering whether to publish such stories often resort to a utilitarian analysis that weighs the good provided by revealing certain truths against the harm caused to the people involved.
Is an important truth revealed by telling the world that Britney Spears’ former boyfriend Justin Timberlake, asked by a radio “shock jock” if the couple had been intimate, answered: “I did it. I’m dirty. I’m in so much damn trouble, man. I’m gonna get calls from my mother.”
Timberlake may in fact deserve a spanking from his mother for sharing the intimate details of his relationship with Spears. However, I’m more concerned that The Journal-World and many other U.S. newspapers considered an ex-boyfriend’s locker room-like boast to be a newsworthy truth important enough to outweigh the harm caused to her by spreading such gossip.
The SPJ code acknowledges that “private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than do public officials and others who seek power, influence or attention,” but it declares, “Only an overriding public need can justify intrusion into anyone’s privacy.”
Without question, some readers WANT to know everything they can about celebrities like Spears who dance out onto the public stage, but do they need to know that an ex-boyfriend said the couple engaged in consensual sexual acts? If so, should the media indulge more prurient readers by describing the ex-couple’s favorite positions and kinky diversions? Why not publish pictures or offer a link to a video showing the act?
The Journal-World’s managing editor, Richard Brack, conceded to me in an e-mail that “As a general rule, such revelations are not news. In this case, though, where the subject has turned her sexuality into a growth industry, it does seem worthy of a mention in a column devoted to personalities.”
Brack explained, “As a window on pop culture, it’s an interesting turn when a young woman who for years has been trading on her virginity to appeal to a certain audience suddenly changes her tack as she casts about for a new image that will allow her to continue to sell product.”
According to Brack, “such a public figure, one who has traded on her sexuality for so long, has long ago given up any claim to privacy in this arena.”
However much that story may have damaged Spears’ right of privacy and cultivated good-girl image, the story identifying Alan Ledoux’s alleged rape victim had the potential to cause even more serious harm to her.
Just as the rape in Tennessee Williams’ play “A Streetcar Named Desire” shocked theater audiences 50 years ago, The Journal-World’s headline and story most certainly got the attention of its readers, telling how Ledoux allegedly entered a Topeka woman’s home wearing a ski mask, bound her with tape and blindfolded her, and led her into a bathroom where he cut her nightshirt from her body, raped and sodomized her.
In contrast to the attacker in Williams fictional play, a brutish blue collar worker named Stanley Kowalski, the attacker in The Journal-World story was a church-going state official well connected to Kansas Republican circles. Like Blanche DuBois, the rape victim in “Streetcar,” the victim in The Journal-World story was identified as the sister-in-law of her alleged attacker.
Unlike Blanche, however, this sister-in-law was not a fictional character used by a playwright to focus on dysfunctional human relationships, but rather a flesh-and-blood human being who stood to be publicly humiliated and stigmatized by being identified to her family, friends and community as the victim of a degrading experience.
As with most newspapers, The Journal-World’s policy states “rape victims’ names should not be used.” Brack, the managing editor, News Editor John Taylor and City Editor Mike Shields all pointed out that the woman’s name was not published, although she was identified as the sister-in-law of the accused. Taylor said: “While we identified the victim in the Ledoux case as his sister-in-law (a salient point, I believe), we did not name her.”
Shields, who edited the story, explained: “Because it was an unusually high-profile case involving a political figure who worked in an environment where information and personal details about the players are political capital, those close enough to be able to put a name with the sister-in-law qualifier would already have heard the alleged victim’s identity.”
Brack, the managing editor, concluded: “Our use of the victim’s relationship to the accused was not in violation of our policies. Given the same situation, I’d make the same decision.”
While the newspaper may not have violated the letter of its policy because it left the name out of the story, that explanation is of little solace to the victim when both story and headline violated the spirit of that policy by identifying her as the sister-in-law of her alleged attacker, who was named.
His status as director of the Kansas Water Office and a political associate of several Republican governors and the current GOP candidate explained the attention given to the alleged rape. The Journal-World was right to tell its readers an important truth about a top public official charged with a brutal rape. They should have minimized harm to a private individual by not identifying the woman who was his alleged victim.
Ultimately, these two very different stories – one in the entertainment section, the other state and local news – may have something in common. Were Spears and the sister-in-law both women who were victimized twice – Spears by an immature cad who bragged about his sexual conquest, the sister-in-law by a brutal alleged rapist, and both by the media pandering to the lurid curiosity of readers?
Ted Frederickson is a professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Kansas where he teaches First Amendment and Society, Media Ethics and Newspaper Reporting. He is a member of the SPJ National Ethics Committee.