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Dealing With Sex Crime Victims in the Media

by on October 28, 2015

The SPJ Code of Ethics says that we, as journalists, should commit to seeking truth and reporting on it.  The code also says that we should pay special attention to protecting the identity of victims of sex crimes.  Many of these victims understandingly would not like their names published and don’t want their unfortunate suffering to be announced to the universe.  In my opinion, it’s a no brainer not to publish these people’s names.  While the story and person who committed these crimes is important information for the public, the victim’s name certainly is not as evident.  These people have gone through the unimaginable, and it is important to be sensitive toward them.  There is no reason to make the victim uncomfortable (and go against their wants) by publishing their name.

However, the situation becomes less clear when the victim is, for example, someone that the media has been following and broadcasting information about since the person went missing. highlights several cases with ethical questioning.  One case that they question is the story of Elizabeth Smart (  In 2002, Elizabeth Smart was taken from her bedroom in Utah at the age of 14.  For the nine months that she was missing, her parents worked with both local and national media to get her name and picture out there.  This seemed an obvious choice to them, as all they wanted was to find their daughter.

So, when Elizabeth was found 9 months later, should the media have published information that her kidnappers were being charged with sexual assault against the 14 year old girl?  On one hand the media is doing their job to report information, especially information that is in the public interest, as Elizabeth’s story was followed nationally by so many Americans.  On the other hand, Elizabeth is a victim who may not have wanted that information to be public knowledge.  This information could have very easily hurt the vulnerable young girl.  In addition to the question of whether or not the information should have been published, there is also the question of was Elizabeth old enough to make that decision?  If not Elizabeth, should her parents have been able to make the decision?

Ultimately, Elizabeth’s story was very open to the public.  Elizabeth was interviewed by several reporters, some who were more sensitive and others who asked questions that made her visibly uncomfortable.  Her parents wrote a book about their nightmare, as well as authorized a made-for-television movie about it.

The article asks, “Does the charge to “seek the truth and report it” in the face of enormous public interest outweigh the potential for causing further harm to children who have already been victimized?”

Situations are all very different and it depends on the story.  In my opinion, if a child who is not currently in the public eye for any reason has been sexually assaulted, I don’t think their name should ever be published.  They are young children who have just experienced something extremely disturbing, they shouldn’t be exploited for something like this.  If a child who is in the public eye is sexually assaulted, like Elizabeth Smart, it is a different situation.  The public is wondering what happened to this young girl, they have followed her story for months.  In situations like this, I think parents should be in charge of making the decision on whether they want the information reported.  Parents already make all decisions for children younger than 18.  I don’t think that a child who is younger than that age and who has just been through something traumatizing is in the correct state to make that decision on their own.  Just because Elizabeth was kidnapped and the public was following her story, doesn’t mean she should have to have her sexual assault be public information.  The media could have easily just said that she was rescued and that she endured some difficult times during the 9 months for which her kidnappers will be jailed, without saying that she was sexually assaulted.  Elizabeth’s parents did give permission for interviews and Elizabeth was OK with that as well, which I think is fine.  But in a situation where the child and parents don’t feel comfortable, I don’t think it should be pressed by the media.  This isn’t exactly seeking truth and reporting it, as you would be leaving something out, however it is minimizing harm to something very sensitive.  The way I see it, because this situation can be such a traumatizing one it is more important to minimize harm and to show respect for the victim than to report and exploit their name.


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  1. As journalists it is our duty to report the truth and the entirety of a story. When faced with a conflict of interest it is usually left to us to use our judgement on where to draw the line and control the potential to cause further harm. In this particular scenario, where was the line journalists were drawing regarding the harm of the victim, in this case a small child, and her family had already faced. Although recounting those events for this girl was difficult and resurfaced many emotions, I believe it was important to retrieve these important details for the story to have a full impact.

  2. josephcurrier permalink

    The scenario you reference with Elizabeth Smart is an important one and a really tough decision for journalists to make. The SJP Code of Ethics is great and it is important for us to try and follow them, but they are (very) often at odds with each other. Seeking truth is probably going to do harm to someone or something. It is justifiable to do harm to the powerful when they have done something wrong that is worth exposing. It is far less justifiable to do harm to victims in the name of seeking truth.

    I agree (and think everyone should agree) that journalists should not publish the names of victims of sexual assault. Their names are irrelevant to the story (though their experiences and their humanity is obviously very relevant). Their name should only be disclosed if they choose to disclose it themselves. I would feel the same in the case of Elizabeth Smart, but that is complicated by multiple factors. The first is that it is seemingly inevitable that what happened to her is going to get leaked to (possibly less reputable) media outlets. Her case is of tremendous public interest. People want to know everything that happened. It is difficult to conceal details of a case that is so publicized.

    The second, as you mentioned, is her age.The decision should be left up to her and her parents of how much of what she suffered is made public. But the decisions made may not be entirely altruistic. The Smart family seem like good people who want what is best for their daughter, but they are in a compromising situation that tends to corrupt people. There is money to be made off of this horrific thing that happened to their daughter. I can assume there is some natural urge to capitalize off of that. I believe that they told their and their daughter’s story for the right reasons, but that is not always the case.

    I’m not sure if keeping the details entirely private in a case with this much media attention is possible in a legal or practical sense. But the victim and their family should have as much say in if and how much they want to expose. Journalists are beheld to seek truth and report it. Truth is ultimately what we’re searching for. But we are not blindly in search for this truth. We can decide how important it is to seek this truth. We can decide if the consequences of seeking this truth are worth it. We can find ways to minimize harm in our search for the truth. There is a humanity associated with journalism. That humanity should be extended to victims and others who deserve it.

  3. I personally do not support victims of sexual-based crimes being named in any way or made public in the media, in almost any circumstance. Supported in Brisbane’s “Name Withheld, But Not Identity,” victims are reluctant to come forward about their abuse in fear of their identities being made public. But in the case of Elizabeth Smart, her identity was made public before it was assessed and revealed that she had been a victim of sexual assault. She was a special case, in which she went missing and that was the immediate and purposeful call for attention. It was only later, once she was found, was it discovered that during her nine months of being missing she had been sexually assaulted. I understand when you say, “Just because Elizabeth was kidnapped and the public was following her story, doesn’t mean she should have to have her sexual assault be public information.” Yes, the media could have just said she was found and her kidnappers would be incarcerated. But for the nine months of the public following her story and hoping for her rescue, it was still the journalists’ duty to tell what happened and I think it was they were obligated to continue the story. Even if in giving extra details they gave closure, they ended the story in that way. Elizabeth’s parents allowed interviews and she was fine answering questions, so I think that’s most important. If she did not want to talk about it and pushed away public attention, then I think the media should have backed down. But since she was comfortable with it, I think it was acceptable that news organizations continued her story and eventually ended it.

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