There may not be a more difficult subject to report on than sexual assault, especially in a community newspaper.
There is a compelling need to share enough information with readers so that they can be informed and possibly protect themselves — particularly in cases where a perpetrator is not caught.
But of equal importance is the moral responsibility to the victim and his or her family, to not inflict further trauma.
There is also the necessity of recognizing our legal system maintains the right of the accused to be considered innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.
On paper, balancing these three interests looks like a straightforward enterprise.
In practice, however, reminding readers that assaults and other crimes are “alleged” until found true in court can appear to be completely insensitive to victims or look like we’re monkeying with the public’s right to public information.
Additionally, we sometimes find that public agencies are reluctant to release information, especially if implored to withhold it by the victim or his or her family. It becomes easy to substitute what oneself thinks should or should not be “public” rather than just following the law.
Under North Carolina public records law, the basic details of any incident reported to law enforcement are public, including the time, date, location and nature of a violation or apparent violation of law (see North Carolina General Statutes §132-1.4) .
The law also recognizes the rights of alleged victims, known as “complaining witnesses.” It allows law enforcement agencies to temporarily withhold the victim’s name or address during the investigative process or if a reasonable person would conclude that releasing the victim’s name and address would cause physical, mental or emotional harm to the victim.
This ability to withhold information, however, is not indefinite.
Although not compelled by law, most media outlets, this one included, take the most important and basic step of avoiding identification of victims of sexual assault.
In the situation that arose this week, however, the husband of the alleged victim wants to make the details of the alleged assault against his wife public. He believes their case was not handled by local police as it should have been.
Police have a different opinion.
When the husband brought up his complaint against the Franklinton police department in a town board meeting earlier this month, he not only read his and his wife’s identities into the meeting minutes, he made it nearly impossible to avoid reporting on incident.
Nonetheless, we were faced with a dilemma. During our reporter’s interview with the family, it became clear that the push to publicize the alleged assault came from someone other than the alleged victim, herself.
So, while the names, dates and details of the alleged assault are now open to anyone determined to see them, we felt like our basic ethical obligation to do what we could, within the law, to protect Jane Doe’s identity was still in play.
We decided that the best course of action was to change the names of the alleged victim and her family.
It is not the most elegant solution, especially since we pride ourselves on avoiding anonymous sources. But, it is a solution that allows for the best balance between three competing concerns.
Part of running any small business is employee turnover. It’s obviously part of running any business, big or small; but it seems to be more keenly felt and harder to cope with in a small business.
It’s especially tough when you end up having to say goodbye to a great team member and friend.
Carrie Causey has written for The Wake Weekly for half a decade. In that time, she’s touched nearly every aspect of every community we serve. And she’s written with equal parts compassion, truthfulness, balance and dogged determination to get her stories right.
Her husband Lee works for Duke Progress and has been transferred from the local nuclear power plant to the one just outside of Charlotte. Naturally, Carrie is going with him.
We wish Carrie and Lee a smooth transition into their next chapter of life. Whichever paper ends up snagging Carrie, they will certainly be getting the best of the best.