8 reasons why journalists shouldn't name a prostitute's clients

I will be the first to admit that when I heard the phrases "Zumba instructor" and "prostitution" and "Kennebunk, Maine" collide in the same news story, I sat up and took notice. I'm inclined to read any story with the word Zumba in the headline.

In a story that's only a bit more sleazy than the latest political ad, a woman from Maine named Alexis Wright -- a dance instructor -- has reportedly been working as a prostitute with more than a hundred clients in her studio and a nearby office.

That is interesting enough, but more interesting, and consequential, is the decision by law enforcement to name her clients. (In routine Google searches for this story, I have bumped into the published names of 21 of her clients, which is said to include husbands, fathers, realtors, lawyers and other prominent businessmen.)

There are, of course, different thoughts on whether the clients should have been named. A New York Times story about the incident said: "Generally, women who were interviewed here seemed to applaud making the list public with as much information as possible. Men, on the other hand, generally thought that the crime was minor and that releasing the names would only harm the families."

I have fielded phone calls from Maine journalists who consider this story and this case an ethical minefield. To their credit, they are asking for advice. Here's what I argued:

1. Publication of the names of johns serves no journalistic purpose or social benefit.

2. The consequences of publication are predictable: It will harm the most vulnerable of the stakeholders, the children of those who are named. Sex crimes -- whatever the nature or severity -- carry a particular stigma for families.

3. The criminal justice system does not need to publish the names in order to suppress the business of one busy prostitute. Nor will publication deter men in the future from engaging in this kind of activity.

4. It was not that many years ago when police would make busts at gay bars and then publicize the names of the men arrested. On occasion, these names could appear in the news media, the men, essentially "outed." Social mores change over time, and prostitution in some countries is legal.

5. The argument "Well the names are already all over the Internet" does not hold water with me. If the names are all over, what is the point of publishing them again, except as a cheap way to attract readers to your paper or your website? Wouldn't it be better not to pander to the crowd, to take the high road in the interests of your long-term credibility?

6. "But it's a public record?" So what? What percentage of public records make their way into the press? Obviously, only the tiniest sliver. The key question remains: What good would this do?

7. Isn't it sexist to publish the name of the one who offers sexual services but not the ones who pay for it? Maybe, but if this were a male prostitute, I would not publish the names of his clients, male or female. If the police busted, say, a house of prostitution or a ring of call girls, I would only publish the name of the person who ran the operation.

8. Publishing the names could lead to more confusion than clarity, and could cause people to make incorrect assumptions about people who share the same names as clients. According to The Daily Mail, "a 75-year-old retired colonel ... was forced to sit down with his wife and explain to her that he had not been sleeping with prostitutes. He shares name with one of 21 men on list accused of paying ... for sex. ... Police only released list of names, without addresses or dates of birth -- leading to paranoia and confusion in town."

Finally, I would cite an Eliot Spitzer exception. Spitzer, former attorney general and governor of New York State got caught using an escort service in spite of his public law-and-order reputation. To generalize, I would be willing to publish the names of clients whose actions were in gross conflict with his public posture or responsibilities.

Realtor?  No

Police Chief? Yes

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    Roy Peter Clark

    Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty member, dean, vice-president, and senior scholar.


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