Barhite: ‘Trust your instincts’ when naming children in news storiesWritten by Brandi Barhite | Community Ombudsman | firstname.lastname@example.org
The Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics says journalists should “show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage. Use special sensitivity when dealing with children and inexperienced sources or subjects.”
I was reminded of this when the national story broke about Gen. David Petraeus engaging in an affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell – and her young children were mentioned by name. It is only a matter of time before Toledo journalists are faced with the same ethical dilemma. Some might already be debating if they should name the sibling who was not involved in the recent carbon monoxide murder-suicide.
I exchanged a few texts with a journalist I know in Charlotte, N.C.
Me: Paula Broadwell lives in your town. So upsetting that a female journalist has done this. And shame on Petraeus! Does anyone not have affairs?
Friend: Im disgusted that her kids names are being published. they are only 4 and 6.
Me: The poor husband and kids.
Friend: Those kids names will be on google forever now. not cool and adds zero to story.
My friend was referring to a story published in The Charlotte Observer. An angry reader (not my friend) submitted a letter to the editor.
“For what reason does The Observer find it necessary to include the names of the children, who are minors, in this story? Their names are not relevant to the story. In doing so, you exposed these kids to more torment and ridicule by including their names.”
While an editor’s note explained that this particular Broadwell biographical story was published using previous articles about her books and activities, which named the children, the names have since been removed.
But was it too late?
Fred Brown, vice chair of the SPJ Ethics Committee, thinks it’s legitimate to list the ages and maybe even the gender of Broadwell’s children, but their names add nothing to her profile.
“It’s worth knowing that she’s a mother, and that she has young children, because those factors are a huge part of who she is,” he said in an email to my question. “They also give the public more information with which to evaluate her actions and character. The children’s names are not part of that narrative.”
Brown, who is a retired Denver journalist, said “a skeptic might say that reporters essentially identify the kids when they identify the mother. But that’s not entirely true. Those who know the family certainly have that information already; others don’t.”
But does it even matter if the names are already out there?
“To argue that others have named the kids, therefore their names will be forever available via any Google search, is a weak justification for identifying them in all news coverage,” Brown said. “If you have qualms about naming them, it’s probably for good reason. Trust your instincts.”
That is something to think about for those of us reporting in Northwest Ohio.