Last week, we reported on the arrest of a Stockton man accused of sexually abusing his daughter. In the story, we chose to report both the nature of the crime — incest — and the name of the alleged perpetrator, although in doing so we were indirectly identifying the victim, who we did not name.
Several readers wrote to us objecting to the story. They were upset we had made it possible to know the young victim’s identity, and believed in doing so we had subjected her to stigmatism within her small community and possible ridicule as she returned to school. They also objected to reporting of the details of the alleged crime: where it took place, the way it was discovered by family members, and most of all that the victim was enticed by offers of soda pop and candy.
Our decision to indirectly identify the victim in this case was not made hastily or without consideration for her. We always try to minimize harm to those we report on, particularly because we are a community newspaper and understand the impact a story can have on the tight-knit neighborhoods we serve. We can imagine how we’d feel if this young girl were our family member or friend. If it’s possible to hide the identity of a victim in a sexual abuse case, we will.
However, in incest cases that journalistic principal of minimizing harm runs up against the public’s right to know about a serious yet underreported crime. Would you want to know if one of your neighbors was accused of molesting his children? What if that person was coaching a youth sports team or serving as a Scout leader? Would you want to know who the accused was and what they had done to whom?
If we had obscured the identity of the alleged perpetrator in this case — as some readers suggested we should have done — we would have created a crime no one was responsible for, and left readers to speculate about who the accused was. This is clearly unacceptable.
Some readers suggested we should have identified the accused yet not the real nature of the crime, reporting instead that the man had allegedly molested a young girl while not identifying that girl as his own daughter. This practice is problematic, however, since it would make it impossible for us to ever report on incest in a way that distinguished the crime from other sexual abuse cases. We would end up sweeping the entire issue of incest under the rug, while leaving readers with the false impression that this problem doesn’t exist in our community and that all sexual abuse crimes against children are committed by external predators.
We would be heading down the same slippery slope if we left out the details of how the victim was enticed. This detail partly explains the machinations of incest and the way it differs from other sex abuse crimes. Most readers want this information, provided we exercise caution in reporting graphic material.
Tooele County victim/witness advocate Holly Johnson believes we made the right call in choosing to report both the nature of the crime and the perpetrator’s name in the Stockton case.
“I know this is a horrible, nasty thing to read about but it’s also a reality in our community,” Johnson said. “People have a right to know this happens. Otherwise how can we fix something we don’t know about?”
Johnson, who has spent 16 years working with hundreds of victims, believes covering up the details of an incest case often creates a culture of shame around the victim.
“Our community should be creating a climate that makes it OK for victims to speak out,” she said. “If we have people teasing a victim who had the bravery to speak out, then we have a serious problem, and we need a more open dialogue on how we treat victims.”
Newspapers large and small grapple with the issue of identifying victims in sexual abuse cases. There is no unequivocal journalistic policy for making such decisions, nor any accepted standard to which all media organizations conform. We have identified perpetrators of incest in the past. Last week, in a separate sexual abuse case, we chose not to identify an adult victim in our reporting because it was possible to do so while still identifying the accused and fully explaining the nature of the crime. That will continue to be our policy — reporting on sex abuse cases as fully as we can, in the public interest, while attempting to minimize harm to victims.