Naming Names: Tough Newsroom Decisions

Willamette Week puts a spotlight on a tragic story.Bad news happens and when it does sometimes editors face no win decisions – someone will be upset either way.

I recall an incident while I was a reporter for The Daily Astorian in the late 1970s. A woman traveling between her home on the coast and a cancer-care treatment center in Portland was killed when her car went off U.S. Highway 26. The Oregon State Police reported the event as a suicide.

As a routine, reporters check police logs daily and report news about fatal accidents. When the newspaper called the family for a response to the OSP report, a family member strongly disagreed and urged the paper not to report the investigator’s conclusion about the cause of death. After much internal debate, the story was published quoting OSP about the victim’s name and apparent suicide. The family raised a huge fuss.

Was the paper right? It followed a routine process, attempting not to play favoritism by withholding “the news.” I agreed with the editorial call then, but today might make a different decision if it were mine. In the end, I believe withholding news of the cause of death would do little harm, if any, to the principle of the public’s right to know. But, it’s a tough call and no criticism intended.

Neil Goldschmidt’s victim

The media in Portland is on fire this week deciding whether to reveal the name of the woman whom former Portland Mayor Neil Goldschmidt had sexual relations with in the 1970s. The woman died a few weeks ago at age 49 after a tormented life of substance abuse and treatment for mental illness.

Since the story broke in Willamette Week (WW) in 2004 – resulting in a Pulitzer Prize for reporter Nigel Jaquiss, – the media has used the term “rape” or “statutory rape,” as well as abuse of power in describing the situation. Because the incident involved a minor, the media followed a journalistic protocol of not divulging the victim’s name. Her death on January 16 changed the landscape.

Willamette Week’s competitors realized they would be chasing after the paper to report developments. Goldschmidt most likely knew it, as well. Would the name be revealed? A series of news reports cascaded in rapid-fire order:

  • The Oregonian reported the victim’s death on January 23. The name was not used.
  • The Oregonian began pulling together a heart-wrenching account of the victim’s life, calling back former columnist Margie Boulé to write a front page story on that appeared in print on February 1 and online the night before. It contained comments of regret stated by Goldschmidt. Again, the name of the victim was not disclosed.

Said Boulé: “Some people will be angry that her story finally has been made public today. They will say it's old news, that Goldschmidt was punished enough by the publicity his crimes received seven years ago. But those people should remember: Neil Goldschmidt told his version of this story in 2004.”

“Her story was different. And from the day I met her, to the day I last spoke with her before she died, she wanted the world to know her side of the story,” wrote Boulé.

  • Willamette Week (WW) immediately followed with a brief online story reporting the woman’s name. A lengthy detailing of her life and family story appeared in print on Wednesday.

Using the name the right thing?

There are equally good arguments either way on the questions of whether the victim’s name should be used. A section at the end of this week’s WW story cites the paper’s logic:

“The journalistic convention of protecting sex crime victims’ identities aims to spare them anguish while they are alive — not afterward. When murder victims are also raped, the latter crime is often disclosed and, of course, the victim is identified,” the article said.

WW went on to report an opposing view:

“My personal opinion is that the story has been told. Goldschmidt has suffered the consequences,” says Tom Bivins, chairman in media ethics at [the] University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication. “I don’t see any justification for exposing her memory and her family and friends to further inquiry and potential embarrassment this far after the fact.”

There is no argument that using the woman’s name and photos tells a powerful story and puts a human face on the mystery. Some say Goldschmidt should not be allowed to steal the victim’s identity.

Again, meaning no criticism of WW or any other media outlet for their choice, I agree with Tom Bivins perspective. While it is possible, Goldschmidt – also a former Oregon Governor and Carter cabinet secretary – cannot fall much lower in public disdain. Those who knew the woman know her story or strongly suspected the facts. Does the public really need to know the personal details?

This story is not over. WW noted the victim collaborated with a former reporter for The Oregonian, Bryce Zabel, who wrote and sold the screen rights for a yet unproduced TV movie. Stay tuned or tune out, but I understand the inability of someone to divert his or her eyes when an accident is about to happen.

(For the record I helped start WW and have a relative working there now. Later, I worked for the victim’s mother, whom I respect as a mentor and a wonderful woman. I briefly met her daughter once or twice. We chose NOT to use the victim’s name in this blog, but plenty know it now.)