By now, most readers are probably familiar with the story of Jaycee Dugard, kidnapped outside her Northern California home at age 11 and held captive for 18 years before being found in August 2009.
Dugard did not testify at the sentencing of her abductors last month. Her first detailed account of her time in captivity, which included rapes and the birth of two daughters, came in a TV interview Sunday.
That interview was covered in an article in Monday’s print edition, which carried the headline “Former sex slave recalls tragic life.”
The characterization gave some readers pause.
“Has she not had a hard enough life without your label of ‘sex slave’? asked Mike Erickson of Laguna Niguel. “Why not the headline ‘Jaycee Dugard recalls tragic life’?”
Another reader emailed the reporter, Martha Groves: “I enjoyed your article on Jaycee Dugard, however wouldn’t a title of ‘kidnap victim’ been more appropriate than ‘sex slave’? All of us should help this young lady recover.”
Editors who worked on the story Sunday night agreed, in hindsight.
“I think the reader raises a good point, one that I hadn’t considered,” said Jim LaVally, an assistant copy desk chief. “The term accurately describes her life while in the hands of these people. But it is loaded with mostly lurid connotations. And it robs the victim of dignity. I think we can find an acceptable alternative.”
And Assistant Managing Editor Henry Fuhrmann, who oversees the copy desks, added, “I’m wondering whether, in some contexts, ‘Jaycee Dugard’ has become a usable headline name because of all the coverage, thus absolving us of finding a suitable generic replacement term.”
Editors had the chance to put this thinking into practice with an article Wednesday. Dugard’s memoir was released Tuesday, and reporter Maria L. LaGanga reviewed it. The headline on the article: “A new chapter for Jaycee Dugard.
This column was originally published on LATimes.com on July 13, 2011.