Readers' Representative Journal

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When should crime victims' names be published?

February 10, 2009 | 12:51 pm

"R&B star Rihanna is cooperating with investigators building a domestic violence case against her boyfriend, the singer Chris Brown, a police source said Monday," is the opening line in a news story published Tuesday, but it was a story a day earlier that brought questions and, in a few cases, condemnation of The Times.

The issue: Whether The Times should have published Rihanna's name as the accuser in that first-day news story.

As a post on this journal a year ago noted, the consideration on whether to withhold names is usually reserved for cases involving allegations of rape. (From the L.A. Times stylebook: "The Times does not name rape victims in most cases. Any exception to this standard, for whatever reason, must be approved by the editor, the managing editor, the associate editor or the senior editor.")

But the story unfolding over the weekend involved accusations of domestic violence.

Danny Shea, media editor at HuffingtonPost, wrote on his blog, "The Los Angeles Times decided to run Rihanna's name — despite the LAPD's refusal to confirm her identity, citing state laws meant to protect abuse victims' privacy."

A few others who sent e-mails thought that news organizations have a rule to omit victims' names in certain crime stories. Reader Adrienne Archer thought identifying Rihanna was "sleazy": "If Mr. Brown did these things he should be punished but if his girlfriend was his victim (which the LAPD did not confirm) she should not be. But you have done just that."

Kay Hagan of Santa Fe wrote, "You could not have known for certain that Chris Brown's assault victim had not been sexually violated as well as beaten up, since the police were withholding her name."

To the several individuals who have written, California Editor David Lauter has responded with the following note.

"We handled this case the same way that we routinely handle dozens of crime stories each week: When we know the name of a crime victim, we generally report it. The name of the victim in a crime is part of the public record, and reporting it is part of our responsibility to tell the public what the police are doing and why. We don't make a special exception for celebrities. We do make an exception in sexual assault cases, where we generally withhold the names of victims because of the continuing stigma that sexual assault victims can face. In this case, our reporters knew, based on their reporting, that the crime involved was not a sexual assault, and so we reported it."

(An addendum to the conversation: Although the practice of The Times and other news organizations  has been to not publish names of rape victims in most cases, there has long been debate in journalism circles over whether that policy should be reconsidered. Geneva Overholser, now director of the School of Journalism at the USC Annenberg School for Communication, was editor of the Des Moines Register when she wrote an opinion piece in 1989 headlined, "Why hide rapes?")

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