Names in the news, before they can read

Two questions, one answer.

Can a 4-year-old and a 5-year-old be sued for negligence in the state of New York?

Should such young children’s names be published in a story about such a suit?

The answer, it seems, is yes.

The case concerns a young girl and boy riding their bicycles on a quiet East Side neighborhood street in New York City. Claire Menagh, an 87-year-old woman using a walker, was knocked down by one or both of the children and suffered injuries that required an ambulance and hospital treatment. Three months later, Ms. Menagh died of unrelated causes, and her estate sued the children and their mothers, Dana Breitman and Rachel Kohn, who were supervising the children at the time of the incident.

Justice Paul Wooten of the State Supreme Court ruled last month that the 4-year-old was old enough to be sued in a civil personal-injury case. The New York Law Journal reported on the ruling on Oct. 28 and published the children’s names. The Times, learning of that publication’s story, followed suit the same day, also naming the children.

The interest in the story was tremendous. More than 300 reader comments on the article, many of them critical of the parents, were published on The Times’s Web site. Other news organizations picked up the story, and social media users further propagated it. The children’s names were distributed widely.

Ms. Breitman, the mother of the 4-year-old, declined to be quoted for my column. But Ms. Kohn, the mother of the 5-year-old, told me that the experience of having her young boy named in The Times was frightening. The facts of the case have not yet been tried, she said, and the published allegations, which she disputes, brought an outpouring of unwanted attention and criticism.

On top of that, she said, she doubts she will be able to shield her son from the outside scrutiny for long.

“I imagine him Googling his name,” she said. “He is going to find the Times article, the story. Those are horrible stories.” was one of the outside news organizations that moved quickly to publish its own story a few days later. Compounding the problem of such scrutiny, the Times and articles both included errors: The Kohn boy’s age was reported incorrectly as 4, not 5; Ms. Menagh died three months later, not three weeks; and she died of unrelated causes, a fact that was not stated in the original stories.

Was The Times right to publish the children’s names?

I polled authorities in academia, journalism practice and child advocacy. None rushed to The Times’s defense. But the question is not an easy one, so let’s start with The Times’s perspective.

Philip B. Corbett, the standards editor, observed that the news organization’s primary responsibility is to “provide information to readers, not withhold it. Any argument that we should hold back information really has to be compelling.”

He added that, in this case, the children’s names were in the public record created by the court case and had already been reported by another news organization. Also, the case was of great public interest, and the judge saw no reason to suppress the names.

Peter Khoury, the night metro editor, who edited the story, told me the case did not trigger any of the policy rules that would typically force a discussion about naming a child in a news story. Those “triggers” are stories involving juvenile criminal cases — not a civil case like this one — and cases in which children are victims of a sex crime. Mr. Corbett said he wishes, in retrospect, that there had been such a discussion in this case.

For Mr. Khoury and other Times editors I consulted, an important consideration was the belief that the facts of this case did not reflect badly on the children because their actions — riding their bikes on a city sidewalk — were commonplace.

“The story here is the judge’s decision,” Mr. Khoury said. “It isn’t that this kid did anything that any other kid wouldn’t do on a given afternoon.”

A final consideration for The Times was the belief that, even if it withheld the children’s names, their identities would become public because of publication of the parents’ names.

To children’s advocates, though, this journalistic reasoning fails to recognize the real-world impact of subjecting children to public scrutiny. The Rev. Emma Jordan-Simpson, executive director of the Children’s Defense Fund-New York, said it’s a “dangerous trend in America.”

“When we stigmatize them by using their names, we say that childhood in America ends at 4 years old,” she said.

Jennifer March-Joly, executive director of the Citizens’ Committee for Children here in New York, said it can be traumatic to push such young children into the spotlight. “Our immediate concern always is that there are the psychological implications for children who have been named in a nationally circulated newspaper,” she said. “Their environment will change. The people who care for them won’t be able to protect them from discussion of the incident.”

The rise of electronic media makes it much harder to provide a shield to such children. Therese Bottomly, managing editor for readership and standards at The Oregonian in Portland, told me in an e-mail message that electronic archiving and search technology have forced a change in her thinking.

“This question has changed radically for me over the years because of the ‘Google effect,’ ” she said. “I used to think short-term about what effect coverage might have on a child returning the next week to a classroom, say, and whether that should be a consideration. Now, we think about the ramifications if a would-be employer or college admissions counselor searches for a kid 10 years down the road.”

In these circumstances, Ms. Bottomly said, her paper probably would not have used the children’s names. And Rick Thames, editor of The Charlotte Observer in North Carolina, also would have passed on using the names. “You have to ask why it matters in this case,” he noted. “And does that reason outweigh the potential harm to the minors?”

Since becoming public editor, I have seen The Times contend with the issue of naming young kids several times. In one case, involving children in Afghanistan, a careful effort was made to obtain parents’ permission before using a child’s name. In another case, children’s last names were dropped in an article on bullying, in an effort to protect them, but the first names were quite distinctive and tended to identify them.

And yet, in these cases and certainly in the case of the 4-year-old and 5-year-old civil defendants, reader concerns and sometimes parental criticism have swiftly followed publication. Each time, I have come away believing the use of children’s names added little value while creating the possibility of harm. In this case, if the judge’s ruling was the point, why were the children’s names so essential?

As I see it, The Times should update its thinking to recognize the harsh effects of the electronic age. What needs revision is the traditional belief that withholding a child’s name, except under extraordinary circumstances, is some kind of dereliction of duty.

This column was originally published in The New York Times on Nov. 13, 2010.

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