Was The Media Wrong To Name Burlington's Courthouse Rape Suspect?
When naming a suspect would reveal the identity of a victim, what responsibility do the media have? To their audience? To the community? To the individuals involved?
In an email statement Thursday, Burlington Police Chief Brandon del Pozo publicly admonished the media for naming a suspect in an ongoing sexual assault investigation. Del Pozo said that in doing so, the news outlets compromised the victim’s identity and made it more difficult for investigators to catch the suspect.
The victim in the recent Costello Courthouse sexual assault was an associate of her alleged rapist. Publicizing his name and the details of the case has undoubtedly compromised her identity in many circles in our small city. We find this deeply troubling considering that exposing this woman’s victimization has not served a legitimate public safety or investigative end. This was not a case of a stranger rape in which a suspect at large poses a danger to the general public. The publicity will now also make it harder to locate Robert Rosario and bring him to justice despite an aggressive, thorough and promising investigation. He is now on the run, and we have good reason to believe he has fled the state.
Traci Griffith, chair of the Media Studies, Journalism & Digital Arts Department at St. Michael's College, says media coverage of sexual assault has major implications for the individuals involved.
“This young woman has also been victimized on multiple levels: by [the suspect] and now by people knowing who she is and what has happened to her," she says.
Griffith says journalists should do their best to not to do undue harm to victims, “but by releasing the name of the accused, we have now essentially released the name of the victim, and that’s problematic.”
Even though releasing suspects' names is usually considered ethical, Griffith says newsrooms should be careful in situations like this when naming the suspect all but identifies the victim.
“We often, as journalists, try to insulate the victim from any additional scorn or stigma that might be associated with this type of crime. But by releasing the name of the accused, we have now essentially released the name of the victim, and that’s problematic.” - Traci Griffith, Chair of the Media Studies, Journalism & Digital Arts Department at St. Michael's College
As for del Pozo’s accusation that publishing the suspect's name will make it harder for police to find him, Griffith says that’s not a consideration that should guide coverage.
“Let's be real. We're not in the business of making it easy for them to do their job,” Griffith says.
Griffith’s take is echoed by the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics. While the code calls on reporters to "minimize harm," it also says to "act independently."