Naming the Victim

Ombudsman

August 22, 1993|By ERNEST F. IMHOFF

Aman called one day to charge that The Sun had put hisgirlfriend's life in jeopardy by identifying her as a murder witness. He told this story:

His friend was a passenger in a truck in Baltimore city when a gunman came up and fired a volley of bullets at the cab. The driver became another city murder victim, and the friend was seriously wounded. The suspect disappeared.

The murder was reported two days later in The Sun in a crime article that began on Page 1 of the local section. The woman, a murder witness, was identified by name, age and block address. When friends told her that her name and address were in The Sun, the woman became hysterical, the caller said .

"She jumped up, got really scared and couldn't sleep that night," said the caller. She didn't see the murderer, but the murderer didn't know that, he said, adding the police told her if she was scared, she should move to another location with her children.

"Why did The Sun print her name and address?" the man asked me. "Doesn't The Sun care about her? It's not worth it."

He's right, and The Sun is wrong. The paper prints other witness names and addresses, not usually in cases so dramatic, but potentially as frightening for victims such as the woman, who the caller says is doing better now.

By coincidence on the same day, another caller said a friend was "going to go crazy" because The Sun had just printed the friend's name, age and block address after a suspect took her car at knifepoint in a car-jacking. The friend said, "What happens if this guy comes and gets her? You weren't there. You aren't scared like she is."

In a similar case this spring, a mother said, "We are scared. You named my son. Now can you protect him?" There have been many calls like that over the years. I don't know of a case where assailants came back to silence witnesses named in print, but it happens, and there are many cases of real fear. For some, it's their first brush with the press as well as with serious crime.

For a long time, I agreed with others here that most names should be printed for reasons well-known to journalists: The public has an interest and a right to know, accusers would eventually have to step forward in court anyway, well-known victims shouldn't be hidden, police records like this are public, names make news, and it sets the record straight so that there is no guessing game as to who the victim is.

A crime victims policy was recently issued to Sun staffers, putting on paper a general policy in effect for years: If we know it, we report it. There are exceptions such as sex crime victims, child abuse victims and victims in the Police Blotter. Some other big papers surveyed have similar policies.

Crime victims are still being identified in most stories, many just a few paragraphs long. The Police Blotter stopped using names in December 1991; it will continue to concentrate only on time and location and missing suspect description, the key data for security-conscious readers.

The Sun policy has another exception clause where victims aren't named: "If there is reason to believe that public identification will expose the victim or witnesses to significant harm." We don't get such specific information before publication but we can guess.

I urge my colleagues to carefully consider each case, assume there is real fear and apply the exception liberally.

We should show more restraint in naming victims when suspects are at large. Some of the reasons once espoused sound hollow now. Most readers won't recognize victims' names. Some other factors seem less important. Hearing angry victims, feeling their fear and reading about crime after crime changed my mind in recent years.

Readers understand why victims' names aren't used in times when people kill other people for no discernible reasons except thrills, anger, showing off, easy-to-get guns.

A bill in the legislature earlier this year, ultimately voted down in committee, would have prohibited police from revealing victims' names in initial police records. I am still against closing police records, but again urge The Sun and The Evening Sun to use common sense as citizens, as well as newspaper people, listening to other citizens.

Identification of victims should be reserved for certain cases where we feel the public's right to know is extremely relevant, in the case of famous victims and in some unusual circumstances (not all of which can be known ahead of time).

My basic hope is that we identify fewer victims, especially when assailants are on the loose. As one colleague here said, names are "interesting but not all-important."

Ernest Imhoff is readers' representative for The Baltimore Sun.

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