Beanery Online Literary Magazine

August 5, 2008

SHOULD INFORMATION ON AN ALLEGED CHILD ABUSER BE PUBLICIZED?

BEANERY ONLINE LITERARY MAGAZINE

SHOULD INFORMATION ON AN ALLEGED CHILD ABUSER BE PUBLICIZED?

While writing for newspapers in various communities I developed a relationship of trust with a key local officials, including law enforcement officers, emergency medical professionals and Army National Guard leaders. As a result, they often confided information to me, “off the record.”

In one case I heard about a serious threat made by a young man, who stated that he intended to visit the local diner and commit suicide, taking five others with him. Because it was told to me in confidence, I had no choice but to honor the trust.

Other situations arose. A language tutor, accused of sexually assaulting his students, was ultimately convicted and served a jail term. When the incident was first published, several persons arrived on my doorstep, confidentially sharing their horror stories of being victims of this then alleged perpetrator, either in their homes (he was a relative) or in the school building. I stood up against this “honorable” lifetime community resident, taking all kinds of barbs. Again, I had to honor the trust his victims put in me, even though repeating their stories would have salvaged my reputation and integrity.

In neither case could I publicize the information. I could not ask my editor to assign me the story, nor could I present the story ideas to him for another writer to use.

Thus, I often found myself in a personally precarious predicament. I knew the potential for danger, for other people’s safety. I had information that would help protect them. Yet I could not speak this information.

Recently, a news item published in the local paper stated that a resident of my current community had been charged with child luring in an adjacent community. Complicating the issue were the many anecdotal stories, about his aggressive behavior both inside and outside my community. A number of residents have checked to see if this man’s name is on Megan’s List (it isn’t on that list—a list of convicted offenders).

Because the stories are anecdotal, I am not free to post them. Because some are shared in confidence, I cannot share them.

Whenever I spot an item in the newspapers about our community, I post it in our community newsletter. According to this policy, the newspaper article reporting this man’s child luring incident should also be posted. However, as the newsletter editor, I debated whether to post the news clip in a newsbites column. Whether to do so had pros and cons.

A couple of community members felt that I shouldn’t post this newsbite. They mentioned concerns about the legality of posting it, and implied that posting it would spoil the “rose colored glasses” that the community had (perhaps it would decrease property values?).

Others disagreed, their opinions supporting one resident who said, emphatically, that it should be posted.

The questions were: When one has information that would protect others, when is it proper to publish it? What and when determines the public’s “right to know?” How far does one go to protect an alleged perpetrator?

The Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists has a heading: “Minimize Harm—ethical journalists treat sources, subjects and colleagues as human beings deserving of respect.” It continues on with “shoulds” for journalists.

Journalists should recognize that gathering and reporting information may cause harm or discomfort, and avoid pandering to lurid curiosity. The pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance.

Journalists should show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage. They must also recognize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than do public officials and others who seek power, influence or attention..

Journalists should be cautious about identifying juvenile suspects or victims of sex crimes, and they must be judicious about naming criminal suspects before the formal filing of charges. Journalists need to balance a criminal suspect’s fair trial rights with the public’s right to be informed.

Journalists should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public’s right to know. Only an overriding public need can justify intrusion into anyone’s privacy.

I had to consider whether posting this newsbite would be pandering to “lurid curiosity.” As a person deeply interested in and involved in child abuse prevention and issues, and a journalist/writer aiming for integrity, I could not post this newsbite to increase readership through lurid curiosity or sensationalism.

However, the news piece backed up by the anecdotal stories convinced me that some children in our community are at risk of harm from this alleged perpetrator. In many communities, this risk factor is ignored while a perpetrator and/or the community reputation is protected.

To me, protecting children is a priority. Is that to be considered a bias?

Another question reared its head. How would the community’s reputation be protected if the alleged perpetrator harms a child in our community (or elsewhere, for that matter)? I contend that the reputation would be sullied far more in the event of an incident of that type than through the publicity of his child luring. Perhaps prevention through education is a wise step.

The opposing residents brought up the issues of legality and personal/family safety.

Legally, the information is part of the public record, which is the only information I was considering posting. Information in public records is available to the public. Thus, my right to post the information is protected under the freedom of the press.

The second point, personal and family safety, presents a different struggle.

“Sin” and evil flourish best in darkness. Perpetrators know this, and often threaten harm to a victim who speaks out. Threats to personal/family safety equal the power of shame created in a crime victim, especially a victim of a sex abuse crime. Often the best way to control sin is to shed light on it.

I am concerned about my personal safety, and admit that I have backed off other situations for this reason: cowardice. However, in this situation, I feel protecting our children is an issue of prime importance. They are out waiting for a school bus in the dark morning of each school day, and parents feel free to allow the children to wander through the community, believing they are safe from harm in this “protected” commuity. I feel every means necessary should be used to educate them about the potential harm their children and/or grandchildren.

I have made my decision about posting the news item. However, I would like to know what you would do, and why. Please let me know in the comment box below.

I POSED THE FOLLOWING QUESTION TO THE BEANERY WRITERS: Do you vote for or against posting this news clip? Why or why not? Samples of their answers are in the comments below.

I NOW POSE THIS QUESTION TO YOU: Do you vote for or against posting this news clip? Why or why not?
Please respond in the comment box below. Thank you.

ADDITIONAL READING ON DOMESTIC VIOLENCE AND CHLD ABUSE:

WILL YOU LOVE ME TO DEATH?

BUTLER STREET

BEYOND THE ROCK

THOUGHTS FOR DAVID

REACH OUT

A PIECE OF ME

THE WELL-ADJUSTED CHILD

CHILD ABUSE AND SCRIPTURE

CHILDREN LEFT HOME ALONE (or in cars alone)

ANOTHER HORRIFYING HEADLINE

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3 Comments »

  1. No. Posting is not possible without complete verification of “charges” for this article. Repercussions are possible without complete disclosure of filed information.

    Comment by beanerywriters — August 5, 2008 @ 12:34 am | Reply

  2. We are not free to post any information we deem necessary. If you used just the material told to you in confidence, I would honor that confidence. Makes me wonder how the tabloids get away with it.
    Since the newspaper posted the article online, you can quote the source in the newsletter when you post it.

    Comment by beanerywriters — August 5, 2008 @ 12:35 am | Reply

  3. When lives are at stake, why couldn’t an article be written without specific names or specific places, simply saying such things are going on—even in our community—and that “please, everyone, be extremely careful and vigilant—even in our area.

    Comment by beanerywriters — August 5, 2008 @ 12:35 am | Reply


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