News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Max Jones

May 7, 2012

MAX JONES: News dynamics sometimes test an editor’s principles

TERRE HAUTE — It has been a long-standing policy at the Tribune-Star not to publish the names of crime victims. As with any policy, there are exceptions, such as when a victim has been killed or severely injured, or is a public figure. For the most part, however, the policy is straightforward.

The principle behind the policy is simple. Crime victims are in their unfortunate situation through no fault of their own. By not naming them in our news coverage, they have a chance to maintain at least some degree of privacy.

With news, however, nothing is ever simple. At least not always. The public’s right to know is a guiding principle for any news organization, and there are times when it trumps all others.

We found ourselves in an awkward situation last week that certainly tested our policy concerning the use of crime victims’ names. It happened in the case of the 12-year-old girl who went missing. Understandably alarmed at her disappearance, the girl’s parents contacted police, who issued an area-wide alert. Local media, including the Tribune-Star, were soon enlisted to help get the word out to the public in hopes the girl could be located. Her name and photograph were used and displayed in print, in online news reports and on television.

More than a day went by with the girl’s name and photos saturating the local news. The Thursday newspaper displayed her picture at the top of page 1, and her full name appeared four times on the page.

By early afternoon Thursday, the case changed rapidly. The girl was located, and investigators soon announced that they believed she was a victim of sexual abuse by two of the men with whom she was found. By day’s end, the two men, one 18 and the other 24, were in police custody under allegations of child molesting.

When the news story shifted from that of a missing person to an alleged sex crime involving a pre-teen girl, our approach to the story changed as well. But we had to ask ourselves, did it make sense to no longer use the girl’s name when it had been used so prominently the previous two days? After all, people following the story already knew the girl’s name and had seen her face repeatedly in photos. Were we really accomplishing anything by suddenly not using her name or showing her face?

The questions were provocative. And reasonable people can reach different conclusions (as was the case inside our newsroom). Ultimately, our decision was to immediately treat the case, and those involved, for what it was — an alleged crime.

We cannot take back previous pictures or references to the girl’s name. Nor can we control how other news organizations decide to handle the matter going forward. But we can at least cease using her name and photo in the future. I don’t know if it will help the girl and her family regain any sense of privacy. It just seems like the right thing to do.

As always, I am interested in your feedback and opinions.

Max Jones can be reached at (812) 231-4336, or by email at max.jones@tribstar.com. Follow him on Twitter: @TribStarMax.

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