June 6, 2011

As Mallary Tenore and Kelly McBride started reporting a story about the alleged rape of a young Tampa woman, we knew that we would ourselves confront the dilemma about which we were writing: whether to name the person who revealed her attack on Twitter.

The three of us discussed the options for naming her. We talked specifically about the reasons journalists generally do not name people who come forward in situations like this, at the risk of being victimized a second time by the law, the media and the public discourse about sex crimes.

At the time we talked, I struggled with whether the underlying principle held in this case: We protect potential sexual assault victims because they do not want their situations made public. But this young woman made hers public on a Twitter account that displays her first name with a handle that includes her last name.

Though she may have intended the tweets for the circle of her then-600+ followers, once it was published it could (and was) followed by many others for whom it was not directly intended, including the media. In other words, it was public.

So, what protection can and should journalists afford someone who has chosen to reveal information? And what if you’re told by counselors — as we were — that people who reveal this information often later regret having done so?

After communicating with her several times in the 10 days since the alleged attack, we asked the woman if she would grant us permission to use her name. She suggested we use her Twitter handle, which we did. I considered spelling out her Twitter handle, but it seems that additional step — combined with a link to her Twitter feed — all but guaranteed her name would be made public.

And once you know her name, a Google search immediately presents you with social networking profiles that reveal where she works, her parents’ names, and a geo-location service that includes some places she has frequented. It scared me to think a potential criminal would have access to this information. And so, we stuck with her Twitter handle.

I am certain this is not the wrong decision, but I am uncertain whether it is the right one.

Share your thoughts by commenting on this story or emailing me privately at jmoos at poynter.org

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Julie Moos (jmoos@poynter.org) has been Director of Poynter Online and Poynter Publications since 2009. Previously, she was Editor of Poynter Online (2007-2009) and Poynter Publications…
Julie Moos

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