Readers have the right to know who’s telling the story

jredecker@theolympian.comFebruary 3, 2013 

The husband of American adventuress Molly Brown, who among other things survived the sinking of the Titanic, believed a woman’s name should appear in the newspaper only three times: at her birth, upon her marriage and at her death.

Some people probably think that’s a good standard. But it’s no way to run a newspaper.

Readers love names. They want to know not only what happened but who it happened to. And who did it. And what everybody thinks about it. Who can they credit? Who can they blame?

Still, newspapers obviously don’t name everyone they could. So when is a person named in the paper?

Elected officials and celebrities likely will see their names in print. It comes with the job.

It gets trickier when the person involved in a news story is a private person caught in a newsworthy event.

Newspapers have long protected the identity of children and victims of crime, especially victims of sexual assault. This can include not naming a suspect if doing so would identify the victim.

But sometimes a story is so widespread or important that it makes no sense to withhold a newsmaker’s name.

For example, Elizabeth Smart recently spoke at Saint Martin’s University about her kidnapping and sexual abuse. Her abduction from her Salt Lake City bedroom at age 14 was national news, as was her discovery nine months later. She had been held by a husband and wife who were convicted of multiple crimes. In the years since, Smart has become a public figure by speaking out on her abduction and the greater issue of human trafficking.

Closer to home, in a story that wrapped up last year in the juvenile court system, we never printed the name of a 13-year-old charged and convicted of fatally shooting his father. However, if a juvenile is charged as an adult, The Olympian generally prints the name.

As for arrests, we usually wait for a court appearance before naming suspects in a crime. We want someone – a prosecutor or judge for instance – to review the matter.

Naming someone in connection with a crime can do major damage and is a step that can’t be undone. We don’t want to act based only on one view of what happened.

Other areas where we are particular about names are quotes and sources.

If your words are going to be in print – especially if you’re criticizing someone or something – so is your name. Readers deserve to know who said what.

Sometimes, people we talk to in reporting a story don’t want their names in the paper, and that’s fine. But we won’t use their words, either. If they’re tipping us to a story, we will verify the information through other – on-the-record – sources before we put it into print. Often, the first version of a story online will have basic information that is added to as more information is gathered or confirmed on the record.

There are rare exceptions when we will withhold a name. For instance, where naming a source has a high likelihood of putting the person in danger. But everyone from the reporter to the executive editor will sign off on maintaining anonymity, and the reason will be explained in the story.

The bottom line is we try to attach a name to information as much as we can. You can best judge the information we present when you know who’s telling the story.

WE’RE PROUD: The Olympian and its news partner, The News Tribune, received a McClatchy President’s Award last week for our coverage of gay marriage. The coverage spanned months in print with news, features and editorials, and online, including blogs, photographs and social networking. Reporters, photographers, online producers and editors played key roles.

The award notice said: The joint capital bureau of The Olympian and the News Tribune, alongside local news reporters from each paper, covered one of the nation’s most pivotal and emotional political stories with a depth and breadth equal to this campaign. Every step of the way, coverage was thoughtful, smart and even-handed on a topic that divided the nation this past year. “The work was particularly impressive in how the staff brought its sprawling story home,” the judges said. “This is a great example of making the most of a running story that readers on the homefront and around the nation were following.”

Jerre Redecker is senior editor at The Olympian. She can be reached at jredecker@theolympian.com.

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