Name withheld, but not his identity

The New York Times generally does not publish the names of sex crime victims. But a Nov. 22 article about one boy in the Jerry Sandusky case at Penn State contained biographical details that effectively identified him for anyone who knows how to search the Web, according to critics and the boy’s lawyer.

Michael Boni, the lawyer for Victim 1, as the boy is known in the grand jury report, said The Times should have exercised greater restraint, adding, “These guys knew it would out the kid.”

Times editors told me they understood that the story was sensitive and discussed it carefully before deciding to publish it. They concluded that it was important to report on the consequences of the crimes that Sandusky is accused of and that the biographical details of Victim 1 needed to be included.

“I would argue there is great value in the story we did,” said Philip B. Corbett, associate managing editor for standards. “It told the reader both about how a situation could evolve, such as what is alleged in this case to have happened, and what some of the impact is on the alleged victim.”

Joe Sexton, the sports editor, whose department produced the article, said the paper tried to respect the boy’s privacy “without so diminishing a story that it would not be credible.”

The issue in this situation is not an easy one for news organizations to deal with. While editors and reporters generally shield the identities of victims of sex crimes, there are instances in which those identities are published. The case against Dominique Strauss-Kahn provides a recent example. In that case, The Times withheld the identity of the accuser, Nafissatou Diallo, until she began giving interviews in an effort to pressure prosecutors to put Mr. Strauss-Kahn on trial.

In the case of the article about Victim 1, The Times did not name the boy but published details that, some say, amounted to de facto identification.

The eighth paragraph of the 2,545-word article told readers, “The New York Times has interviewed dozens of friends, coaches and others involved in the case to fill out a portrait of the boy, his experiences, his life before he became part of Pennsylvania’s most high-profile investigation, and his life since.”

The controversial details were laid out in a section of the article that dealt with an auto accident the boy was in, his subsequent recovery and his athletic success not long after — biographical elements that had drawn local news coverage at the time.

Frank Hinchey, a retired journalist from Delaware, Ohio, wrote me to ask, “Isn’t it the job of journalists to protect the identity of rape survivors unless they want their identities known to the public?”

He sent me links demonstrating how easy it was for him to take the details about the accident and the boy’s athletic career to learn his identity.

“I thought the piece was a good attempt to put a ‘face’ on the victim’s relationship to the accused coach,” Mr. Hinchey added in an e-mail, “but, in so doing, Victim No. 1 can easily be identified through basic Internet searches. One could argue his identity has been revealed to a much larger audience than his hometown of 6,100.”

David Newhouse, editor of The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa., which has covered the Sandusky story extensively, also criticized The Times, writing in a Nov. 23 column that his paper knew Victim 1’s identity but had withheld details to protect it. He wrote that his newspaper has learned that other news organizations used the details in The Times’s article to discover Victim 1’s identity.

“It is no accident that Victim One was only the second boy to come forward to authorities in what is alleged to have been more than 15 years of assaults by Sandusky,” Mr. Newhouse wrote. “Stories like these, if anything, could discourage future victims from speaking up.”

Times editors defended the article, contending that Victim 1’s identity was already widely known in his community and that someone would have to be motivated to identify him through the Internet. The Times also noted that the boy’s mother had given multiple interviews to the news media: to ABC, CNN and The Patriot-News, as well as to a freelancer whose article appeared on The Huffington Post.

I don’t see those interviews as giving The Times an opening to introduce the identifying details, however. The mother maintained her anonymity, and her son’s, in all of the interviews. (Through Mr. Boni, the lawyer, she declined to speak with me.)

She did tell the Huffington Post freelancer, according to the article, that she was “worried that her son will be further targeted as result of this article, but decided to be interviewed because she wants her son’s story to be heard.” She used the interview to criticize the handling of her son’s case by officials at his high school, disputing the Pennsylvania attorney general’s favorable characterization of the school’s actions and suggesting that a school official had contributed to verbal attacks on her son after he came forward.

Nothing in this interview or the television interviews suggested she was willing to expose her son’s identity further. She was, in fact, complaining that a school official had exposed her son’s identity to other students’ parents.

And, as Mr. Newhouse suggested in his column for The Patriot-News, it is the fear of exposure that often discourages victims of sex crimes from reporting them in the first place. Dean Kilpatrick, an authority on sex crime victimization, told me that public exposure of victims in high-profile cases reinforces this fear.

“Most victims, based on the research, are very reluctant to report,” said Mr. Kilpatrick, a clinical psychologist at the Medical University of South Carolina and director of its National Crime Victims Center. When they are asked why they don’t report the crimes, he said, “some of the top concerns are: ‘I am afraid,’ ‘I don’t want other people to find out,’ ‘I am afraid that people will blame me for what happened.’ ”

Because of this, Mr. Kilpatrick said, surveys show that fewer than one in five rape cases are ever reported to authorities. Sexual crime is the most underreported category of serious crime in the United States

In the case of Victim 1, the details concerning the auto accident and the boy’s athletics added human interest to the story, giving readers a deeper understanding of the boy. Was that reason enough to include them and put his privacy at risk? I don’t believe so. The traditional mandate to preserve privacy is there to protect sex crime victims — a broader social purpose that, in my mind, outweighs the transient benefits of a single human-interest story.

This column was originally published in The New York Times on Dec. 17, 2011.


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