From time to time we write about editorial decisions reporters have to make. Sometimes we explain why we write a story the way we do. This one involves a criminal case that is hard enough to read about, let alone how hard it is to write. Here are some details.
A guy in Harrisonville starts having sexual intercourse with his five-year old daughter and continues doing it for years. He fathers four children by her. One dies in a fall from a couch. One is stillborn. A third one dies because of lack of medical care. Two of the children are buried in chest-type coolers. The third one is buried in a makeshift grave in Oklahoma. The fourth one is with his mother.
A jury in a public trial has convicted this guy of murder, incest, rape, and abandonment of a corpse. The daughter, now 20, testified against him. She has been praised for her courage.
The Kansas City Star today identifies her by name and identifies her father by name. In fact, the Star has a picture of the father on the front page.
The Associated Press did not identify the father or the daughter in the story it sent out for this morning’s newspapers, saying it did so to protect the identity of the daughter.
The story we wrote for use in our newscasts today does not mention the name of either person. But our decision was based on somewhat different reasoning. We felt the issues of the case were the most important part of the story. We also felt listeners in Kennett or Kirksville or Bethany or Carthage would be appalled by the story of what happened and the names would not add to or detract from the heinousness of this case.
Names increase in importance as the story moves closer to home.
This was one of those quick judgments that reporters make when they’re doing stories. Several elements go into those decisions. They’re all considered in a matter of seconds. Sometimes Geography plays a role. Sometimes long-standing policy makes the decision. A lot of considerations can race through a reporter’s mind in seconds.
An argument can be made that the 20-year old daughter does not need to be protected. After all, she testified, in public, during the trial. She gave her name. And she’s being praised for going public with her story. If the daughter doesn’t need protecting, why not give the name of the father?
For us, it was a matter of issues and distance. Other news organizations had their reasons for making their judgments. We can all be right. We can all be wrong. The important thing is that this sordid story has almost run its course. The father will be sentenced in June and will soon be absorbed into the state prison system. The daughter? She and her son have their entire lives ahead of them. Maybe they’ll be better off because they can go somewhere away from Harrisonville someplace where nobody knows their names. And maybe in these days of internet infamy that can follow people everywhere, the stories that include the young woman’s name will be so far down the list that people will lost interest in looking for it.
That’s speculation of course and it’s not a good reason for running or not running he rname and her father’s name.
In truth, we don’t really care whether you think we made the right decision or the Star made the right decision or the AP made the right decision. Somebody at each organization had to decide how to play a story. We make decisions every day, every hour, about how to play stories. The decisions are usually made in seconds. It’s a privilege and sometimes it’s a price of being a reporter.