At The Crimson, we often have to decide whether to print someone's name, or even to print certain specific details, in a sensitive story. Our editors and reporters debate the merits of running the name against the merits of respecting the individual's privacy. We often err on the side of privacy. Sometimes, it is indeed an error. Usually, though, I think we're right.
Several readers have called or written The Crimson to criticize an article we printed on November 13 about a teaching fellow who was allegedly beaten by two men. Our coverage of the event has raised questions of journalistic ethics that need to be discussed in a forum more public than our newsroom.
First, an important side matter: Our first story, which appeared on November 11, unfortunately misidentified the victim of the attack because the police gave the reporter incorrect information. We published a correction the next day, and on November 13, we printed a wholly accurate version of the facts. This story became the cause of concern for readers.
For the second story, a woman who was with the alleged beating victim at the time spoke to the reporter on condition of anonymity because she feared reprisals from the attackers. We granted her anonymity, but in the same story, we printed her home address, which we had obtained from the police.
Readers charged that giving the exact address compromised the woman's anonymity and may have put her in danger. In fact, the woman agreed to have her address published.
Still, it's an important topic to consider, and it raises the sensitive issue of giving specific details and identifying accusers and the accused in crime stories. Conversely, when we do err on the side of printing what we know in sensitive stories, we do so only after thinking the issues through and debating them in the newsroom. Sometimes, readers don't like the results.
Questions like this come up all the time, and we often don't get such clear permission from the subject of our story. The question in this case was not whether we had the right to print the address: We had the information regardless of our interview with the woman; it was a matter of public record, noted in the police log, which is available for anyone's inspection.
Rather, the question is whether we had the responsibility to protect her.
The answer is not as simple as it first seems. The Crimson's responsibility is to the Harvard community, and that includes, in the case of crime stories, the accusers, the accused and the general public.
It is a natural tendency to think protectively of accusers. They are the alleged victims. But it is not so natural a tendency to think protectively of the accused, even in a society with a legal system that, in theory, presumes innocence.
Given these conditions, the press is expected to withhold the names of alleged victims of rape, but at the same time, the press is also expected to print the names of people accused of rape, even though they have not yet had a fair trial.
And for the most part, the press itself shares these expectations. It is The Crimson's policy to do so, but it is a precarious balance that we in the press have a responsibility to justify.
Many, myself included, argue that printing the names of accused rapists without printing the names of accusers is acceptable because of our responsibility to the community; the public has the right to know of any possible threats to its safety, and readers may come forward and identify the accused in connection with the case (or other crimes).
It is this same philosophy that informs the decision to run someone's exact street address in a crime story: It places the story in a real context that the community can use and understand.
Simply naming the street, without providing the address, does not fully serve residents who live near the scene of the crime, and it might needlessly concern residents who live nowhere near the scene of the crime. There is a strong case for printing the exact locations of crimes, and we may anger readers in the future with a decision to do so.
Finally, this general philosophy also informed our decision to run a lead story yesterday about attempted suicides at Harvard.
To be sure, suicide is a sensitive, difficult topic to cover. One caller yesterday morning argued that the story was offensive and should not have run. She further argued that we should not have printed the class years of the two undergraduates who attempted suicide, and that we were wrong to name the two undergraduate houses where the attempts took place.
We felt that we should definitely protect the identities of the students involved, and that we have an equal responsibility to inform the Harvard community about a serious issue it rarely confronts. The students' class year and house are just two pieces of a picture that may better inform the community. For example, the reader may have formed a different conception of the issue if the undergraduates were both first-years--a detail that might, or might not, indicate a problem of stress and emotional difficulty for first-years.
Perhaps more important, the more vague and abstract such a story is, the more vague and abstract is the impact of the story on the reader. If a story is put in a real context that the reader cares about, the reader will connect to the story. I hope those who picked up the paper yesterday and read the lead story made that connection.