The ethics of reporting on children cases

At Two Row Times, it has come to our attention that the publication of child sexual assault and abuse cases, whether the charges are confirmed or not, may seem biased or unethical when presented. This piece will layout the ethics of reporting on such cases.

Considering that the majority of the public gathers its knowledge about sexual assault from the media, it is important to present accurate information about it.

Since child abuse became a national issue 40 years ago, the media has played a major role in directing public attention to it. But media publicity about child abuse and child victimization runs the risk of adding to the substantial burden child victims already carry.

Theories about victimization trauma, research about recovery, developmental thinking about the emotions, and modern practices in the fields of criminal justice and journalism all suggest that publicity about an ordeal may increase victims’ feelings of shame and stigmatization.

This can push victims to not wish to come forward.

Thus enters the publication ban: the media is constitutionally entitled to publish information about court cases, but there are exceptions to this right. The court may and at certain times, must impose publication bans to protect the fairness and integrity of the case, the privacy or safety of a victim or witness, or the identity of a child or youth.

A publication ban prevents the complainant or witness’ identity from being published in print or being broadcast on television, film, or radio. There are various sections in the Criminal Code that allow for bans on publication. There are also serious consequences for breaching publication bans.

This is where the supposed bias and unethicality for our readers may lie — believing that we are only telling one side of the story. But this isn’t so: we want to provide fact-based information, but cases that involve children and youth can only be presented based on the information we are legally allowed to offer. This includes media information and press releases forwarded to us by police departments.

In recent decades, the ethics of crime reporting and being sensitive to crime victims’ needs and concerns have increased in the commentary. The issue of addressing victims’ right to privacy has been the topic of books and ethical codes and guidelines have been written to increase journalists’ sensitivity in such cases. There seems to be some consensus in the field that the privacy of certain types of victims, in particular, should be protected, such as sexual assault victims and children, at least in most circumstances.

In a 1990 survey, for example, 10 per cent of newspaper editors thought rape victims’ names should never be printed, 40 per cent thought names should be printed only with victims’ permission, and 44 percent believed names should only be printed in exceptional cases.

Canadians, in general, appear to have only limited knowledge on sexual abuse cases as well, which was seen in a study conducted by the Department of Justice Canada that showed that the media ranks among the most important means by which the public finds out about victim services, with 36% of those surveyed stating that they learned about such services through the radio or television and 27% through newspapers.

These findings mean that the media carries a lot of responsibility when it comes to publicizing a sexual abuse story.

So when the names of child victims and other identifying information appear in the media it can exacerbate trauma, complicate recovery, discourage future disclosures and inhibit cooperation with authorities for the child or children involved.

“It was just really hard to hold your head up, even to walk outside with everyone almost in the world knowing what happened … I shouldn’t care what people think or say. It’s just the fact that everyone knows I’m the kid,” said David Ritcheson, reported by The Associated Press in July of 2007.

As for the impact of publicity when bad things happen to people, most people would prefer to avoid the limelight. Perhaps because discomfort with such exposure is assumed, no research has actually been done to verify how child victims react under the glare of publicity. However, research from a number of related sources leads to the conclusion that the impact is primarily negative and with publication bans, children are protected in a way that many are not.

In conclusion, when a person of high moral standing or a person that sits in a position of power within a community is charged with abuse allegations, it is common practice for police departments to issue a warning or media release to the supporting community.

This then becomes the responsibility of any linked media outlet to inform the people and the court’s duty to protect the child involved.

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