Our View: to minimize harm
April 21, 2022
The practice of journalism is littered with landmines that, despite good intentions, can be easily tread upon and will cause harm. The Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics contains a section on minimizing the potential harm reporting can cause. Over the years, we’ve certainly stumbled in this regard and used those lessons to better inform how we cover sensitive topics. That point of view informs our suggestion to the Sweetwater County Sheriff’s Office to be more considerate in how it disseminates information through its press releases.
A recent release regarding the investigation and sentencing of Russell Byrne, a Wamsutter resident who pled guilty to 58 charges related to the creation, possession and distribution of child pornography and sexual assaults on three children, showcases why more sensitivity is needed in these situations.
While the three children are not named in the release, a paragraph does provide enough identifying information that could lead someone to learn their identity. The nature of the internet is that once something is posted, it exists in perpetuity. Because of that fact, it’s very easy to cause harm to people, in this case the children victimized by Byrne.
This situation shows why ethical journalism is still important to informing people. We’re not obligated to publish every written word in a press release. Some may prefer a copy, paste, publish approach to news gathering, but the inherent harm that could be caused in a situation like this should override any desire to paste and publish immediately.
The issues and ethics of covering sensitive topics has changed how we approach situations like this. At one point, the Star would publish a minor’s initials in reporting the alleged crimes. The thinking was, since the name wasn’t appearing in full, using initials in a story was acceptable because there could be hundreds or thousands of people with the initials of B.B. or A.S. in Sweetwater County. We’ve changed our minds on that practice. Being more vague how children are identified in reporting crimes committed against them, especially at sentencing, does not change the fact that they were victims.
Our hope is the administration at the Sweetwater County Sheriff’s Office uses this editorial to reassess how it publishes press releases involving crimes against children. We’re not calling for restrictions on the flow of information, but having a careful eye in not providing information that could identify children in these situations would be beneficial in not traumatizing them in the future.