When crime victims tweet, new and old dilemmas meet for news organizations
Soon after a young woman in Tampa, Fla., was allegedly raped, she tweeted about the crime. “6'2 black man w scruffy beard blue shirt tan shorts driving commercial truck … raped me,” she tweeted. “Glad im alive.”
The 24-year-old’s tweets raised some difficult questions for journalists, adding a new layer of complication to an old conversation about whether or not to name sexual assault victims. Most news organizations don’t name sexual assault victims unless the victim grants permission to be named. While that policy seems pretty straightforward, it doesn’t address the questions that arise when a victim shares the news of her attack, along with other details, within her social network.
The added complications force journalists to think through the values that underpin anonymity policies, and how those policies fit with current definitions of private and public information.
In an email interview with Poynter, @amgorder said she’s been using Twitter as a way of letting people know what happened to her and gain support. She said she hopes that in the long run, going public will make it easier to catch the suspect.
“Many of my close friends and I communicate via Twitter. It was a way to reach out quickly to a large number of people who had the potential to have information or the ability to help,” she said. “People I have never spoken with before have sent their support via Twitter. I could not have gained that through any traditional means of communication.”
Local media outlets, including ABC News, The Tampa Tribune and Poynter’s St. Petersburg Times, all quoted the young woman’s tweets, but didn’t link to them or include the woman’s name or photo, which appear on her Twitter page.
“There was a point we considered naming her or using her Twitter name because her information was already out there, but there was some discussion considering the Times' policy and the oddity of this story -- a victim who tweeted about her rape to about 700 followers,” said St. Petersburg Times staff writer Ileana Morales, who wrote about the crime. “In the end, she hadn't agreed with us to put her name in the paper or on our website. So we didn't.”
In quoting the young woman’s tweets, news organizations provided readers with a pathway for identifying the victim. A quick Twitter search of the quoted tweets would take you to the victim’s page.
The victim said she knew that people could find her Twitter profile after the media quoted her tweets, but it didn’t make her want to stop tweeting.
“I work in social media and I am well aware of the search capabilities. Not everyone knows how to utilize these, but given the right tools I know I could be found,” she said. “I am not sure how to deal with being identified. Under most circumstances, I would be fine with being identified. My main concern with being identified is my personal safety and my family's knowledge of that safety.”
Tampa Police Spokeswoman Laura McElroy said in a phone interview that media outlets alerted police to the woman’s tweets. Police, she said, asked her to stop tweeting about the crime shortly thereafter out of concern that the tweets could interfere with the investigation.
“Even before tweeting and Facebook came into play, we'd tell victims, 'If you choose to do an interview, share an emotion, share what you've gone through on a personal level. Don't talk about the facts of the case because we don't want to jeopardize the investigation,' ” McElroy said. “In the immediate aftermath of a crime, there may be a need for a catharsis, but there may be regret later.”
It’s no secret that young people live their lives out loud, using Twitter, Facebook and other social networking sites to share news, express themselves and offer glimpses into their worlds. A new Pew study released last week revealed that Twitter use by Internet users ages 25-34 has doubled since late 2010 -- from 9 percent to 19 percent.
Tampa Tribune reporter Mary Shedden said her newsroom was as interested in the Twitter trail as they were in the crime story. “Before any calls were made, we knew we wanted to go deeper than a cop story and look at the ramifications and the pluses and minuses of why she opted to tweet,” Shedden said via email. “We wanted to strike a tone that discussed her decision, but put it in context of how someone in her generation would respond to this or any other horrific trauma.”
Leslie Kille, director of the trauma recovery services for the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay, said this isn’t the first time she’s heard of local victims tweeting about sexual assault. The practice, which she said is most common among adolescents, can be detrimental to the victim.
People inevitably ask “What happened?”, which forces the victim to have to continuously rehash the story of what happened, Kille said by phone. She fears that posting information about the crime on social networking sites could increase the likelihood that the victim will be revictimized. Tweets or Facebook posts, Kille said, may cause the perpetrator to become upset or find out details about the victim that could put him/her at greater risk.
“We see a lot of danger when victims freely share their story with anyone who will take two minutes to listen,” Kille said when asked about the Tampa rape case. “In the case of this young lady, she did get a lot of support from friends on Twitter, but that means you’re constantly stuck in the story and in the survival mode, and you don't get to move toward healing.”
Last Sunday, as the victim arrived at her parent’s home on the West Coast, she thanked her followers for their support. She considered whether it was a good idea to continue tweeting and sent out this update: “Last 24 hrs havent been easy & this is just the beginning decided 2 continue 2 tweet thru this in hopes2 help others who have been here 2.”
Since then she’s documented her quest to find a distracting movie that doesn’t contain romance or violence and she's documented her attempts at therapy, including chocolate chip cookie dough and beach bonfires.
As victims of all kinds take to social media, journalists, bloggers and any third party that might appropriate the information for another purpose should be mindful of a few best practices.
The Tribune’s Shedden said she talked with her editor and ultimately decided to quote the victim’s tweets because they “were the best possible examples of the trauma the victim had just experienced.” There were typos in them, and they were emotional and at times incomplete. They also revealed a sense of vulnerability, which the Tribune didn’t want to perpetuate by naming her.
Here are some other things to keep in mind.
Just because a victim posts information to a social network does not necessarily imply she is consenting for that information to be used beyond her circle of friends or followers.
Privacy is not an on-off switch, according to Danah Boyd, Harvard law professor and senior researcher at Microsoft Research. Most people are interested in controlling who sees what information, Boyd said in a keynote speech at 2010 SXSW: “There's a big difference between something being publicly available and being publicized.”
Social networks stand right in the middle of that gap. Users make information publicly available. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they want it publicized beyond the circle of followers.
Boyd’s point: When most citizens discuss the public/private continuum, they are using a different set of definitions than journalists and lawyers. It would be easy enough to argue that a woman who shares the details of an attack with her 600+ followers has given up any claim to privacy.
Yet it stands to reason that journalists are going to have to rethink how and when they grant anonymity to a victim who has voluntarily disclosed her identity online. In most cases, the first step is to ask a victim how she feels about being named in a news story. But even then, the decision about naming is not an easy one. Victims are often traumatized to the point of shock in the hours and days after a sexual assault and may not be thinking clearly.
The younger the victim, the more care journalists must take to ensure she is capable of consenting to being named.
Don’t be fooled by into thinking a victim is ok with others re-purposing her information. The brevity of Twitter often translates to bravado.
In the wake of a sexual assault, counselors and advocates will tell you that what victims need most is control, that includes control over what happens to their information.
All crime victims feel violated. Rape victims continue to feel exposed and vulnerable as they go through the criminal investigation, and as they try to regain their equilibrium. Letting a victim know you are repurposing her posts at least prepares her for the shock of seeing them in another venue.
Journalists must also consider the relevance or news-worthiness of the information in the tweets.
In the Tampa case, the tweets were intimate and interesting, but not necessarily critical to telling the story of the reported assault. That might not always be the case.
A victim could reveal information that is crucial to the audience understanding true and important facts of a crime. If the police don’t make that information available, then journalists have to weigh the value of repeating the information to their audience against the cost to the victim and possibly to the police investigation as well.
This is a delicate balance, difficult to discuss in the abstract. Suffice it to say, journalists will need to answer other questions in order to make their decision. Can the information be verified? Why won’t the police confirm it? What was the victim’s motive for posting it? Who can be harmed by the information? Does withholding it change the truth of the story you present?
Finally, as with any information posted to a social network, it’s important to do additional reporting to understand the sequence of events. The Tampa ABC affiliate WFTS had to correct an early report, picked up and widely distributed by Matt Drudge, that police learned of the rape from the woman’s tweets. In fact, she called 911 first.
Tampa Police's McElroy said there were initially some promising leads in this case, but as of Friday, no suspects have been caught.
Mallary Tenore conducted the interviews for this story and wrote the first half of it. Kelly McBride contributed her thinking to this report and wrote the second half of it.
Editor’s note: We asked the victim's permission to use her name and she suggested we use her Twitter handle, as we have. This was a difficult decision, which you can read more about here.