7/12/2007 10:03:00 AM Editorial Abuse reporting balances public's, victims' interests
The story on the front page of today's Daily News about a mother who says her four-year-old daughter was a victim of sexual assault is one we would rather not publish - and that you would probably rather not read.
But it's important to know sexual assault and abuse is a problem that's deeper, broader, harder to deal with and closer to home than the sensationalism of prime-time sexual-predator "stings."
It's also important to know the limitations we face in telling such stories. While laws vary from state to state, in Illinois juvenile court proceedings are closed to the public and juvenile records are sealed and kept separate from other court records. While there's nothing preventing a citizen from going public with information about a case - or the news media from publishing it - doing so could affect the course or outcome of the case, as well as exposing both the source and the media to legal action from the victim, the accused or the state. While there are situations in which limiting access is not in the public interest, the law was designed to protect both victims' and defendants' rights.
So when victims or their families come forward to tell their stories to the news media, they are often granted anonymity, as the Daily News has in this case. Names of the victim and her family members have been withheld or disguised, and details of the story that might help identify the victim or the accused have been omitted or stated in general terms. While the use of anonymous sources has been critized in recent years, cases like this one are often handled in this way.
The use of anonymity is not limited to reporting on juvenile court cases. The Daily News published a story in 2002 about grandparents raising their grandchildren that also protected the identity of the family members.
It is also important for you to know that the story in today's Daily News was initiated by the mother of the victim, who called the newspaper asking why more information had not been published on the case. (Those involved in such cases often are not familiar with the laws governing juvenile proceedings or are understandably concerned about matters other than the consequences of going public with their stories.) The newspaper then contacted Counseling and Information for Sexual Assault/Abuse, which arranged a meeting with a CAISA representative, the victim's mother and a Daily News reporter.
The Daily News also asked Illinois Press Association counsel Don Craven to review the story before it was published. He expressed most of the same concerns that have been outlined in this editorial, and the newspaper worked with both Craven and CAISA to develop a story that would "get the truth out," as the mother wished, while protecting those involved in the case.
"They might learn to cope, they might take steps to feel more comfortable, but for the rest of their lives that incident is in there," CAISA's Mickie Owens told the Daily News. "That person is different from that day forward."
That's why it's important to raise awareness of the problem of sexual assault and abuse, particularly of children - and why it's important to keep the victim's interests, and future, in mind. We hope we've balanced those goals in reporting this story; if you have questions or comments, let us know or contact CAISA toll-free at 866-288-4888.