This blog is to give you insight into some decision making processes in the news business.
Let's begin with a couple of basic rules:
1. We NEVER identify by name or picture or in any other way ... a juvenile charged with a juvenile crime.
2. We NEVER identify by name or picture or in any other way ... the victim of sexual abuse ... without the victim's decision to go public.
Now, despite stating : NEVER ... situations do change and therein lies an ethical decision.
Let's being with the general issue of identifying a juvenile suspect ... or a juvenile convicted of a juvenile crime. As I stated ... we don't identify; there are times when the juvenile's family wants publicity and desires to forfeit that cover. Also, there are times when a juvenile is charged as an adult ; that removes the blanket of cover.
Dealing with the general issue of identifying a sex abuse victim. Sometimes, the victim is an adult and decides to go public to tell their story so they choose to have their identity exposed. Sometimes, the victim is a child, and rarely is that victim identified; that creates another difficult issue if the case involves incest and the perpetrator is the child's parent; if we report the parent's name .. then the child is inadvertently identified. What if the child is found dead and later the kidnapper is also charged with raping the child? The victim is public as is the sex abuse crime.
That's a thumbnail sketch of some basic issues; now to two real cases from today's headlines.
The first involves 16 year old Devante Thomas of St. Louis who was the subject of an intense manhunt; he was suspected of shooting a police officer 3 times. In the beginning, police would just tell us they were looking for a juvenile, but when he wasn't found immediately, police released his name and picture; they wanted us to broadcast the identity because they feared he was armed and dangerous. So we did.
Then, Thomas comes forward and surrenders. Now, police were backstepping .. not using his name or picture.
As a News Director .. what would you do?
If you follow that first basic rule ... he is a juvenile and might only face juvenile charges; do you suddenly stop identifying him by name/picture? If he is charged as an adult ... the issue is easier because now you will definitely ID him.
Keep in mind ... for several Channel 4 newscasts and on our website ... we used his name and picture; other local news agencies did the same and of course by going on our website ... he went on the worldwide web.
So, he is clearly identified at that point. Now, can you take it back? Should you no longer ID him?
If you are the News Director: what do you do?
My answer is this. Originally, we broke the NEVER rule by police request for what appeared to be legitimate concerns for the welfare of others. Now that we have broadcast his name and picture ... there is no way to act as if we didn't.
It goes back to one of previous blog issues.
If you take a pillow case of feathers and scatter them from the top of the Arch ... there is no way you can come back tomorrow and find all the feathers.
So, once the seal is broken .... it can not be replaced.
Now, to the second case regarding sex abuse victims.
This real case happened on the same day we debated the Thomas issue; this one involved a young teenage girl who had been missing.
When her parents and police feared foul play ... we broadcast her picture and name ... trying to help find her.
Then, she is found alive, but there is concern that she was sexually molested by an older man.
News Director ... what do you do now?
She is a sex abuse victim ... not a suspect of any kind. Should we no longer use her name and picture; based on my analogy about the feathers ... you can't pull the information back.
My thought is this: True, you can not retract her ID ---- BUT again, this is a sex abuse victim; So, while she has been named and pictured ... we stop ... IMMEDIATELY.
Each of these cases can have additional mitigating circumstances, and other cases can be "thisclose" to being similiar and might have their own circumstances which could add other levels to be considered.
That's a quick primer on general and specific issues. What do you think should be done?