The public editor for Cornell University’s student newspaper Cornell Daily Sun, Nicholas Kaasik, slammed the newspaper for how it reported on rape in an April 4 story. “In my opinion, The Sun had a significant lapse in journalistic ethics in its coverage of a recently reported rape,” Kaasik wrote.
While the paper didn’t identify the victim by name, Kaasik explained the paper did possibly identify her by “jigsaw identification” because there were “far too many identifying details” in the story. Jigsaw identification refers to giving enough information to readers so that the person’s identity can be known, as iMediaEthics has written before. (The UK Press Complaints Commission warned UK newspapers to ensure they don’t accidentally provide “jigsaw identification” for sexual assault victims.)
The April 4 Daily Sun story used information based on “court documents obtained by The Ithaca Journal,” according to its story. It described the night of the alleged assault in a narrative format and included striking details such as when and where the attack took place; who was in the room with the victim during the assault; what bar the victim and her girlfriend had visited six hours before the attack and what the victim drank hours before the attack.
“While all of this extraneous information is undoubtedly interesting to some readers, and provides a dramatic narrative, this is not some television thriller,” Kaasik commented. “This is the horrific reality of a fellow member of our community, and it is not appropriate for the readers to voyeuristically witness, through the words of The Sun, the events that surround this awful crime.”
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He defended, however, the Sun’s decision to both report on the rape and indentify the accused, but the story “went too far … and intruded on the privacy of the reported victim,” he concluded.
Kaasik called for “a precautionary principle” on describing victims to prevent repeat incidents, advising the Cornell Daily Sun to abide by a “newspaper policy” that is “more careful about protecting victim’s identities.” Further, Kaasik recommended that the newspaper should be proactive in protecting privacy and being ethical, even if the potentially invasive information is available or published elsewhere.
iMediaEthics has written to Sun editor Rebecca Harris asking for a response to Kaasik’s criticism and for more information about how the newspaper handles reporting on rapes. We’ll update with any response.
Just last month, iMediaEthics wrote about Kaasik’s criticism of the Sun’s decision to publish what he described as a “paparazzi-like” photo of students after being told their housemate had died. While Kaasik argued the photo was “sensationalist” and not worthy of publication, the newspaper defended the photo as a way to humanize the reaction to the student’s death.