Crime reporting like walking highwire

By David Stevens

One of the more difficult decisions media outlets have to make on a regular basis is whether or not to publish the names of sex-crime victims.
The issue has been in the national spotlight this month because of allegations that pro basketball star Kobe Bryant raped a woman in Colorado. Most mainstream media have withheld the woman’s name, sympathetic to concerns that many rape victims fail to report the crime for fear of having their reputations tarnished.
The Clovis News Journal has a policy that we do not name victims of sex crimes. We often leave out names of those related to sex-crime victims, realizing that disclosure can easily identify the victim, especially in a small town.
Mostly I feel pretty good about our policy — except when someone uses anonymity to make a false allegation in hopes of receiving a large financial settlement or for political reasons.
Of course we don’t know when allegations are false. And so we give the alleged victim the benefit of the doubt until a court can decide, and I think that’s the right thing to do.
What bothers me about all of this is that media do not wait on a court’s decision before naming alleged criminals.
About 10 years ago, a candidate for sheriff in a Texas Panhandle county was arrested and accused of rape. He claimed innocence and said his accuser was politically motivated. All I know for sure is the alleged rapist was named by every newspaper, radio station and television station in the region and he lost the election … and the alleged rape victim withdrew her criminal complaint a few weeks later.
Most newspapers do not hesitate to name victims of non-sex crimes. But occasionally we receive such requests, especially when the victim was apparently selected at random. Name the victim, the argument goes, and the criminal can track that person down and make sure they’re unable to testify at trial.
Our paper often names crime victims, especially when they are killed or seriously injured, but we often withhold names of crime victims on request. Overall, I think that’s the responsible thing to do.
But I can imagine this scenario taking place:
John Smith works at a convenience store and leaves large sums of cash in the drawer until his robber friend — we’ll call him Bob Jones — comes in to demand the loot, which they later split.
The newspaper reporter thinks Smith doesn’t want his name in the paper for fear the “robber” will come to his house and kill him. But the real reason Smith doesn’t want his name in the paper is because he and Jones have been traveling from town to town, making a living by robbing convenience stores in the manner described above. If Smith’s name showed up in a newspaper 27 times as the clerk at a convenience store that’s been robbed, somebody might get suspicious.
Sorry, but that’s how my mind works.
The CNJ has had four requests for anonymity in recent weeks. It was granted to two alleged crime victims, but not to two alleged criminals.
One convicted criminal said he pleaded guilty to charges of having sex with a child because he preferred the light jail sentence and probation to the public scrutiny of a trial. He claimed innocence, but we published his name anyway.
One crime victim said he didn’t want his name in the paper for fear an armed robber might track him down at his house. This same guy chased two alleged robbers — at speeds he claimed reached 90 mph — in an effort to identify them for police. But we granted his request for anonymity anyway.
We always try to make the right decisions in crime reporting. We always try to be fair and to respect readers’ concerns as we report the news. Sometimes we walk lines so fine in accomplishing all these goals that it feels like a highwire act.

From the Editor’s Desk is a weekly memo to CNJ readers. David Stevens can be reached at 763-6991, extension 310, or by e-mail:
david_stevens@link.freedom.com