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Decision to hold back names not taken lightly

Friday, September 28, 2007 | 5:00 p.m. CDT; updated 1:44 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Twice in two weeks, your Columbia Missourian has withheld information from you. So far, we’ve only partially explained one of those decisions: to withhold the name of the 16-year-old girl who was sexually assaulted during a home invasion in north Columbia. We decided not to identify the father of the victims — five children ranging in age from 7 to 16 — because identifying any member of the family would have identified the victim.

We’re in the business of revealing, not concealing. So you deserve to know more about our rationale for the decision and another that followed this week: to withhold the names of three juveniles charged in connection with the crime.

It started with a phone call from the reporter, Ben Magnuson. He was at the scene and already a little shaken up by the description of what had occurred in the house on Citadel Drive. Now the sexual assault victim’s father was inviting Ben to interview his daughter.

So he called his editors. Should he interview the rape victim? Should we use the father’s name, which he had so willingly volunteered? Wouldn’t we be identifying the rape victim if we identified the father?

We — immediacy editor Liz Heitzman and I — talked about it, and this is what we decided:

We wouldn’t have Ben interview the rape victim. The father’s willingness to put her in the limelight bothered all of us. Some of what the father had to say about what had happened to his children didn’t match what the police had told us. That also left us uneasy about his judgment.

And as a former victim’s advocate, it worried me that the victim — who had been sexually assaulted by two of the intruders — might be in shock and not capable of making the best decision for herself so soon after this brutal crime.

That brought us to another no: We would not identify the father or use the family’s name. We talked about the argument for disclosing the names of sexual assault victims, that concealment implies a stigma or, worse, some fault on the part of the victim. The argument has merit and isn’t easily dismissed.

This week, we decided not to publish the names of the juveniles charged in connection with the home invasion — not yet, not until they are certified to stand trial as adults, should that occur. This is the practice of many news organizations.

Why?

The reporting students whose work fills the Missourian answered that question during an ethics discussion this week. “Innocent until proven guilty,” they said. “Especially when someone young is accused of a crime.”

But we publish the names of adults accused of crime, some students countered. And these juveniles are old enough to drive; aren’t they old enough to withstand the public scrutiny that comes with being charged with a major crime?

The majority said no. It was a rich and lively discussion, as was the one that followed our decision to withhold the name of the sexual assault victim.

That’s the objective: to talk about how we contribute to the community conversation. And to listen. In that conversation, we decided, the names had less value than the sensitivity and accuracy of the reporting.


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