Naming A Boy in Sex Case

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By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

A church youth leader is accused of having a sexual relationship with a boy, a minor at the time of the alleged crime.

The youth is 18 years old by the time the case reaches trial. His mother is the first witness in the case, using her full name. In court, the boy is identified as John Doe.

The reporter covering the case calls the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists, asking if his California newspaper should print the mother’s name, which would identify the boy. They live in a small town.

The reporter is concerned about potential harm to the boy from being identified.

“I asked if the news organization has any policies or precedents that are relevant” to the case, the AdviceLine advisor said in his report on this case. The advisor also mentioned the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics, which urges journalists to minimize harm while seeking truth.

The reporter responded that his newspaper had no policies or precedents that could help answer the question.

Looking for a second opinion, the AdviceLine ethicist contacted a member of the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists staff who is a professional journalist. Most of the questions AdviceLine gets are answered by a staff of ethicists who teach or taught ethics at universities. But the ethicists sometimes reach out to professional journalists to ask how the news media typically handle some ethics issues.

“I wanted to get a second opinion on this since the boy is now at the legal age of an adult, and his mother is allowing herself to be named,” said the ethicist. The journalist “agreed with my initial inclination to err on the side of caution without a compelling reason to identify him.”

The journalist pointed out that even though the complainant is 18 years old, he is still young and warrants some additional protection.

“That’s in keeping with what the SPJ code and ethics scholars would say about being sensitive to vulnerable parties, including young people,” said the ethicist in his report. When the ethicist called back, he learned that the reporter had discussed the case again with his editor and they had come to the same conclusion.

Here’s what the SPJ code of ethics says: “Use heightened sensitivity when dealing with juveniles, victims of sex crimes and sources or subjects who are inexperienced or unable to give consent. Consider cultural differences in approach and treatment.”

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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.

About cbukro

Casey Bukro was inducted into the Chicago Journalism Hall of Fame in 2008 for outstanding contributions to Chicago journalism, after a 45 year career with the Chicago Tribune. Bukro retired from the Tribune in 2007 as overnight editor. He had pioneered in environmental reporting and in 1970 became the first full-time environment specialist at a major metropolitan newspaper in the United States and covered major developments on that beat for 30 years. He won the newspaper’s highest editorial award in 1967 for a series on Great Lakes pollution. The Society of Professional Journalists awarded Bukro its highest honor, the Wells Key, in 1983 for writing that organization’s first code of ethics. He is a past president of SPJ’s national ethics committee and a past president of the Chicago Headline Club. Bukro graduated with bachelor and master degrees from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. In 1998, he received the Northwestern University Alumni Association’s alumni service award for 17 years of volunteer service to the university. He has lectured in environmental journalism and journalism ethics at Northwestern, the University of Chicago, DePaul University, Loyola University Chicago, Columbia College, Columbia University and others. Before joining the Tribune staff, Bukro worked at the former City News Bureau of Chicago and the Janesville Gazette, Janesville, Wis.

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