On Steubenville, Ohio and the Media’s Responsibility to Redact

On Sunday, March 17, 2013, a verdict was announced in a Steubenville, Ohio high school rape case that had shaken the small community and, frankly, the entire nation. News coverage of the guilty verdicts included video of the rapists apologizing to the victim’s family in court, using her first names in their remarks. There wasn’t live coverage of the verdict or the defendants’ remarks on any news outlets, as far as I could find, but the victims’ name still managed to make it into edited packages of the event that aired that Sunday and Monday. Fox News, CNN, MSNBC and local Ohio Valley CBS affiliate WTRF aired coverage that featured the victim’s name.

The victim, a 16-year-old high school student in Steubenville, probably — rightfully — expected and hoped that she would remain a “Jane Doe” figure, that the media would act professionally and ethically in its coverage of the case and protect an underage victim. The ethical standard, in basically any sort of court proceeding that involves minors, is to protect the names of those who are involved to avoid unnecessary harm or embarrassment.

Because her name was broadcast on at least three major cable news networks, the victim undoubtedly experienced greater amounts of unnecessary and uncomfortable attention from the general public following the case. With a few quick Google searches and after reading three stories about this ethical issue, I found that some had gone as far as to search for the victim on Facebook.

It’s important to note that the release of the victim’s name, especially on the Fox News network, is a nuanced issue. Ahead of its coverage of the verdict, an editor’s note ran on FoxNews.com explaining that the station would not be releasing or using the names of the defendants in the case, a decision that, I assume, was due to their minor statuses and the aforementioned ethical implications with reporting on such cases. So while the Fox network said it had every intent of protecting all minors involved, even going as far as releasing a statement about it, the producers somehow didn’t care to be careful enough to redact the victim’s name in their edited broadcasts.

Following the coverage on Sunday and Monday, all of the news outlets responsible for broadcasting the victim’s name had released new or edited versions of the stories, which then included redactions instead of the name. (This according to Raw Story.) They had also removed any original stories that named the victim. It’s surprisingly difficult to find any forthright acknowledgement of these mistakes online, and, as far as I know, no information has been publicly released concerning a change in reporting process or newsroom policy following the errors.

Seeing as none of the verdict coverage in these instances was being broadcast live, it’s pretty unfathomable that reporters and producers could have pieced several different stories together without noticing, or bothering or caring to notice, that the victim was mentioned by name. What is ever more interesting is the fact that this mistake was pushed through the news wheel multiple times.

And, somehow, on three different cable news networks, the victim’s name was not redacted. She was utterly and completely overlooked. (And let’s not forget how Fox expressed its commitment to keeping the underage defendants unnamed. Maybe that would’ve resonated more soundly if they had taken care to protect the victim first and foremost.)

In terms of the best way to issue a correction for an instance like this, it’s probably best to edit and redact the name right in the body of the original story and make readers aware of the changes by explicitly and visibly mentioning that they were made. For a news organization to maintain some semblance of credibility, dignity, professionalism and respect in this instance, it’s crucial to issue a correction and own up to the mistake as soon as its realized, rather than deleting the original story and posting something completely new. The first option is more respectable and shows accountability of action, something the American public generally appreciates.

The weight and breadth of implications that these errors caused should not be lost on anyone. Consider the internet. Its existence has only enhanced the strength and force with which the 24-hour news cycle reaches global audiences. Unfortunately for the victim, this case was no exception. The web, as it does, acted as a medium and environment through which hundreds of thousands more people were able to view and share this particular news coverage. And just like that, strangers, sick with curiosity, were searching for a 16-year-old rape victim on Facebook.