On Naming Names

Trigger warning: rape When I was writing about the shooting in Colorado, I hesitated to put the name of the arrested suspect in the post.  It was something I thought hard about, and I had to stop writing for a bit to try to figure it out.  People were throwing his name around a lot, and mostly just saying horrible things.  Calling him a murderer.

Ultimately I decided to put it in, but to be really clear that he was only a suspect, and no matter how damning the evidence looked at the moment, I didn't have all the facts (and neither did basically anyone else on the internet.)

Newsweek posted this exchange on Tumblr earlier today:




The first photos are coming out of the Colorado courtroom where ‘Dark Knight’ shooting suspect James Holmes appeared before a judge this morning. His hair was orange, he was wearing a jump suit, and heappeared dazed.

“Holmes is being held on suspicion of first-degree murder, and he could also face additional counts of aggravated assault and weapons violations.”

on suspicion

he did it, just say it, he did it.

He appears dazed, does he? Some sympathetic language for a mass murderer! Have ANY of you managed such sympathy for nonwhite killers?

Whoa, relax. That the killer appeared “dazed” is simply fact here. How in the world does this become a racial/media issue in reporting that?! Let’s not do that. This case is already too much to handle as it stands. Also, “on suspicion” is necessary. That whole “innocent until proven guilty” thing is a pretty important piece of our democracy, no matter who’s in the courtroom.

(Emphasis mine)

I had already been thinking about this, with a lot of apprehension, when I watched SourceFed's video earlier today, Twitter Rape Victim Punished!?, which addresses a case in which a teenage girl faces possible jail time because the two rapists, as part of a plea bargain, in which they got a slap-on-the-wrist punishment and a gag order, preventing the girl from talking about the case.

If you didn't watch the video:  The case involved the two boys raping her, then, months later, sharing pictures of the rape on facebook.  They were not charged with rape, and the judge ordered the victim to never talk about what happened to her.

As part of their coverage, Elliot Morgan and Tricia Hershberger gave the names of the girl, the judge, the rapists' attorneys, and the two rapists, Will Frey and Austin Zehnder.

I think they made the right decision, too, but it's a pretty radically different decision.  And as a news source, SourceFed is pretty clearly going beyond the call of reporting, moving towards attempting to influence the story.

That's par for the course in the mainstream media now, but it's a pretty radical departure from historical media ethics.  The issue of names is one of many areas in which the guideposts for bloggers like me aren't as clear as they might once have been, and it's difficult to make those decisions.

Regular readers:  If you think I've crossed a line in past or future coverage of sensitive topics where the release of names might be unduly damaging to those named, or you spot other ethical issues where you think I'm getting it wrong, let me know.  I want to have that conversation.