One of the lowest points in my journalism career came after the now-defunct Latte Magazine published an investigative piece I had written. It was a story about persons under 18 who had committed violent crimes on Guam, and what happened to them in the juvenile justice system.
Among the subjects of the piece was a teenage boy who had intentionally killed a young child. The story focused on the killer’s journey through the system. While researching and writing the story, someone told me that they thought the victim’s family had moved off island. I committed the cardinal sin of journalism: I didn’t check it out.
When the piece was published, the family of the victim — who, it turned out, was still on the island — wrote a letter to Latte, letting me have it, and rightfully so. When the managing editor asked how I wanted to handle it, I said, “I screwed up. I need to apologize to the family, and do it publicly.” I called the family and apologized, saying there was no excuse for my failure to consult with them beforehand.
We published their letter, along with my response in which I admitted to being remiss in doing my job. Had I called beforehand to let them know about the piece and ask for an interview, things might have gone differently for them. Instead, they were slapped in the face, having to relive the worst thing that could happen to any family years later because of me. I had revictimized victims.
The Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics includes a “Minimize Harm” section, which states that journalists should:
Balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance or undue intrusiveness; and;
Show compassion for those who may be affected by news coverage. 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.
Recently one of our local TV news stations did a series on unsolved murders. For one of the segments, they contacted the victim’s family, who requested that they not run the story, as it only dredged up an incredible amount of pain for them. With nothing new to report on the case, “What is the point?” the family asked. The station ran the story anyway, not mentioning the family’s request not to run it.
In both of these cases— my own and this most recent one — we reporters failed to minimize harm. As journalists, any time we run a story where a victim is involved, we should always ask ourselves if what we are going to publish will harm an innocent party. If publication needs to happen — if the public needs to know about a situation for safety reasons, or there is a break in the case — then we need to consider how we can minimize harm to the victim or the victim’s family.
In my situation, it was a life lesson learned. I had caused pain, albeit unintentionally, because I just didn’t think about the family of the victim. As reporters, we may think we are being helpful because, if the story results in a break in the case, or if some other family with problems learns from the situation and is able to prevent harm, we think we are doing our jobs.
But what we need to consider is that every time a news organization republishes the details of a crime, especially if they are horrific, the victim (if still alive) and/or their family is forced to relive the trauma. Again. And again.
In this technological age when reporters simply copy and paste the gory details of a sex crime or a murder from the magistrate’s report, they should first ask themselves: Is the information I am about to publish going to help the situation?
Is revealing the penetration details of a sex crime going to help solve the crime, or is it being published purely because the details are salacious, or because you as the reporter are simply just copying and pasting and not thinking? If it is an old case, is there anything new about the case that the public needs to know that warrants dredging up these details?
If the answer to the questions above is no, then don’t include graphic details that can, and will, cause pain, embarrassment, or worse. Because at the other end of your story is a victim, especially in a sex crime, or a victim’s family, in a murder or most any crime, that has to relive those details.
In my role as administrator of the Governor’s Community Outreach Federal Programs Office, which administers federal grants addressing domestic violence and sexual assault, I am part of the Sexual Assault Response Team (SART) Steering Committee.
At nearly every SART meeting, the prosecutor complains about how the media constantly revictimizes victims of sex crimes by continuously splaying often graphic details in multiple stories about the crime.
In news reporting, there is an unwritten rule: never identify the victim in a sexual assault crime (exceptions are when the victim wants to be identified, which is hardly ever). Most especially if the victim is a minor. Referring to the victim as “known to” the alleged perpetrator is often not helpful. If the victim is the son or daughter of the perpetrator, and the media report states the victim’s age, and publishes the perpetrator’s name, age, village, etc., then for the most part, you have identified the victim.
So, reporters, think about that the next time you are copying and pasting details about modes of penetration into your news story. Think about who will hear those details. The public needs to know about rape, absolutely. But every intimate detail? No. In these cases, minimizing harm to a victim is more important than feeding the public’s voyeuristic tendencies.
My journalistic breach still haunts me. I learned from it. Hopefully, others in the profession will read this and do the same.
Minimize harm. It’s part of our job.
Jayne Flores is the director of the Bureau of Women’s Affairs and a long-time journalist. Contact her at email@example.com.