Policies protect victim's identity

August 31, 2003

Like any newspaper, we have guidelines in place for any number of eventualities, including when we use names of people involved in crimes.

The guidelines come into play for victims, witnesses and, in some cases, for those charged.

Most newspapers, and other media, do not use the names of rape victims in an effort to avoid further traumatizing someone who already may have been seriously affected by what has been done to them.

That's one of the easy calls. It requires no moral debate, no discussion. If the charge is rape, or sexual assault, the victim's name is not used.

The Herald-Mail withholds the names of those accused of molesting children when they are the fathers or stepfathers of the children involved. That's because printing the names of those charged would, for anyone who knew them, reveal the identities of the victims.


Making the decision about whether to publish the name of the accused gets tougher when the relationship to an abused child is more tenuous.

What do you do if the person charged is the mother's boyfriend, a neighbor, a baby sitter, an uncle, a cousin? In most cases, there is no way for the editor or editors who must make the decision to know whether publishing the accused's name will provide a crucial clue to the identity of the victim.

In such cases, we tend to err on the side of caution. The lesser of evils is to keep the accused's name out of the paper and not risk revealing the victim's identity because of an association with the person charged.

In cases involving physical abuse, we use the names of both the charged and the victim, in most cases. But that is a general rule, and, depending on the circumstances, there are times when a victim's name isn't printed.

There are incidents, for instance, in which a person is mugged, robbed, assaulted or present for a hold-up. When the victim doesn't know the attacker, robber, etc., we generally do not use his or her name if the assailant is on the loose.

The "why" is easy. There's somebody violent out there who, if given the identity of a victim or witness, might decide to make sure that person can't identify them or testify against them in court. We don't want to be the avenue for them obtaining the name and address of someone they might decide to threaten or harm.

If the person who committed the crime is arrested, however, all bets are off. In theory, the risk to victims and witnesses is reduced significantly, and their names will be available in court documents for anyone who really wants to know who they are.

There have been times when witnesses have provided their names and quotes to reporters and willingly talked about a crime they saw committed. Then an editor decided the name should not be published because doing so might put the witness at risk.

On occasion, when it might have been better to delete a name for that same reason, that has not been done and the name has run, either because it was the editor's judgment it should run, or because it somehow got by the editor.

Bottom line, in many cases it's a judgment call, frequently based on incomplete information.

We try to minimize the number of times we make a wrong, or perhaps less right, call by discussing the tricky ones when they come up, seeking input on the really tough decisions and trying to make the best decision.

Sometimes, we get it right. But not always.

Linda Duffield is managing editor of The Morning Herald. She can be contacted at 301-733-5131, extension 7591, or by e-mail at

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