The Associated Press stopped naming the 15-year-old Tennessee girl who went missing with her 50-year-old teacher earlier this year after she was found and he was charged with a sex crime.
But, the San Diego Union-Tribune‘s readers representative, Adrian Vore, highlighted an interesting ethical question: After the teen’s name had been so widely reported in news stories about her disappearance and discovery, does it make sense to attempt to shield her identity now that her teacher, Tad Cummins, has been charged and she is considered an alleged sex crime victim?
Cummins has been charged with kidnapping, having sexual contact with a minor, and taking a minor across state lines for sexual intercourse.
Ordinarily, news outlets don’t name sex crime victims, but “the girl’s name and picture have been everywhere for five weeks,” Vore noted.
Several news outlets are still using the girl’s name, but the Associated Press isn’t. One story explains, “The Associated Press is not naming the student or any family members because the teen is an alleged victim of a sex crime.” The Associated Press did name the girl in stories about her disappearance before she was found.
The Society of Professional Journalists’ ethics chairman Andrew Seaman told iMediaEthics by e-mail, “It’s obviously important to use a person’s name when they’re considered a missing person, because the hope is that the information will lead to others helping to find the individual.”
That said, he agreed with the Associated Press’s decision against naming the girl.
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“Personally, I would suggest news organizations stop using the girl’s name after it was learned that she may be the victim of sex crimes,” Seaman e-mailed iMediaEthics. “The author of the San Diego Union-Tribune piece is correct that the proverbial genie is out of its bottle, and the girl will never have total anonymity.”
Seaman pointed out that “a reader would likely need to search online to find her name if news organizations stopped using it in stories.”
“Not using the name at least creates some distance between the stories and the girl, which I think is a reasonable action for journalists to take in this matter,” he went on. “The solution isn’t perfect, but it at least shows journalists and news organizations understand the gravity of the situation and are working to minimize harm of an alleged victim and minor.”
However, Vore suggested it seems to make more sense to name the girl. “It seems futile to reverse course,” he wrote, noting that after the girl was found, her father went on Good Morning America to discuss the case. “The ‘who’ is an integral part of the story, why not at this stage use her name?” Vore asked.
That said, the Union-Tribune will not name her moving forward. “The U-T will stick it to its policy of not naming a victim of a sex crime, which this case turned out to be. As an employee, I will adhere to that,” Vore told iMediaEthics.