Why Is the Daily News Naming the 5-Year-Old Kidnapping Victim?

Jim Gardner says he won’t do it. After all, isn’t stripping a 5-year-old a form of sexual assault?

On Monday night, police issued an Amber Alert for a 5-year-old girl who was abducted that morning from an elementary school in West Philadelphia. Her photo and name began appearing in media outlets throughout the region. On Tuesday morning, her face and name filled the cover of the Daily News. Then police announced that the girl had been found, crying in a park, clothed only in a t-shirt. And suddenly, coverage changed. At least some of it.

As veteran 6 ABC news anchor and prolific tweeter Jim Gardner explained:

 

At the time, police had not interviewed the girl. But 6 ABC still decided to pull her name from the coverage.

“Once it became evident that it was not confirmed that there had not been a sexual assault,” explains Gardner, “we transferred into our longstanding policy of not using the names of sexual assault victims.”

As of 3:30 p.m. on Wednesday, as reports surfaced that the girl had been stripped and blindfolded before apparently escaping her abductors, 6 ABC was still not using her name. “And we do not have any plans to use her name,” says Gardner. After all, isn’t stripping a 5-year-old girl a form of sexual assault?

“I just typed in ‘Philadelphia Kidnapping’ in Google, and her name comes up,” observes Kelly McBride, senior faculty for ethics at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in Florida. “And the reality is that in a lot of sexual assault cases, where traditional media chooses not to name the victim, someone somewhere names, and it’s very easy to find. Especially when sports figures are involved. Take the cases of Ben Roethlisberger and Kobe Bryant. It’s still very easy today if you want to find the names of those women.”

In the case of the 5-year-old in Philadelphia, the Daily News and Inquirer continue to use her name as of this morning. But Fox 29, which broke the story on Monday night, has stopped naming her. They’ve even deleted the content of their original story, which named her, although the URL remains. A better option would have been to redact the victim’s name from the original post, inserting a note explaining the decision.

Even though you can never completely scrub the internet of anything, McBride insists that withholding (and redacting, when necessary) a victim’s name in cases of rape and sexual assault is still effective.

“The internet has changed the equation somewhat, but not completely,” she says. “When you stop naming somebody in the traditional media, which tend to be the websites that get the most traffic, within a day or two, when you ask people, ‘What’s the name of that girl?’, they can’t tell you.”

The not-naming policy came out of the women’s movement in the 1970s. “It was a time when there was an increasing awareness of the systemic problems we have in our society with investigating sexual assault and the re-victimization of victims,” says McBride.

One woman who believes that news outlets should, as a matter of policy, name the victims of sexual assaults and rape is Geneva Overholser, professor and director of the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Journalism. While editor of the Des Moines Register, Overholser won the Pulitzer Prize for a series of articles about a rape victim who came forward, wanting her name and photograph to be used to tell her story.

Yesterday, Overholser emailed me her thoughts:

Fundamentally, I think two things: we are not able to determine guilt, and it’s not our job to do so. To decide to “protect” one of the parties in a case and not the other is not an appropriate journalistic decision. Second, we habitually do name adults who bring charges. To make an exception in only this case risks adding to the notion that rape victims have done something wrong and that everything about the crime victim belongs in a dark corner.

Overholser has a point. If victims of rape and sexual assault have done nothing wrong, then why do we withhold their names?

“It’s an interesting philosophical question,” admits Gardner. “But I think that our abiding motivation is to protect the privacy of someone who suffers this kind of crime. It is a uniquely private sense of victimhood. It is a uniquely humiliating and violent crime, and we feel, frankly without much deliberation, that women who undergo such a crime deserve to have their privacy protected.”

Poynter’s McBride says that while she can envision a time when there’s no stigma associated with sexual assault, as a society, we are not there yet.

“It’s true that in the last ten years, the stigma has lessened to a significant degree,” she says. “But the thing that sexual assault survivors will tell you about is control. It’s about who knows what about them. And we as a society come up with safeguards to afford sexual assault victims a certain amount of privacy. We all acknowledge the stigma and shame that comes with the initial trauma but also the constant stigma, when people come and find out you are a sexual assault victim. They think about the most private places of your body and how those places were violated.”