Sparing the Victim

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By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

Ethical journalism involves more than what you report; it’s also about what you decide to leave out.

The Loudoun Times-Mirror set a good example of that by deciding against naming the parents of a high school sexual assault victim, and refusing to follow the example of other media that did.

The assault occurred in the bathroom of a Loudoun high school, allegedly by a person charged in a separate assault at a second school.

“By using the names of the parents, the original reporting indirectly identified a teen sexual assault victim,” said the newspaper in an editorial. This violated the newspaper’s policy against identifying victims of sexual assault, and was an invasion of the victim’s privacy.

The Loudoun Times-Mirror should be applauded for its sensitivity toward the victim. The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics says, under a section on minimizing harm: “Show compassion for those who may be affected by news coverage. Use heightened sensitivity when dealing with juveniles, victims of sex crimes and sources or subjects who are inexperienced or unable to give consent.”

The weekly newspaper is based in Leesburg, Virginia, covering news in the area for more than two centuries, says its website.

The Loudoun Times-Mirror editorial went on to say: “The matter was complicated for us when the story was picked up by myriad national and international news outlets, many, if not all of which named the victim’s parents.” The newspaper acknowledged a long history of media abandoning efforts to protect the identity of victims once others have identified them.

The Loudoun Times-Mirror decided to ignore that practice, for which it also should be applauded. Ethics is a matter of coming to your own decisions about what is correct and ethical. Simply doing what others do is copycat journalism, letting others make decisions for you.

The editorial continued:

“In the end if came down to this: While Loudoun has seemingly been under the unrelenting gaze of the national media recently, those organizations don’t have the same ties to this community as we do. These pages are tossed in the driveways of the victim’s peers, and that’s not something we take for granted. If the decision to not name the parents in our reporting can preserve even a modicum of privacy for a person who has endured such a reprehensible crime at such a young age, then that’s a choice we can live with.”

That’s a good choice.

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The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists was founded in 2001 by the Chicago Headline Club (Chicago professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists) and Loyola University Chicago Center for Ethics and Social Justice. It partnered with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2013. It is a free service.

Professional journalists are invited to contact the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists for guidance on ethics. Call 866-DILEMMA or ethicsadvicelineforjournalists.org.

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