Some news is bad news

Slippery Rock University’s newspaper, The Rocket, published a story Nov. 6 titled “SRU student threatens ex-girlfriend’s life” that caused a stir in the Slippery Rock community. The story, which delved into graphic details concerning sexual assault, received numerous negative comments and letters.

Sarah Raught-Krepp, an employee of a Human Services Center in New Castle, commented on the article, expressing the feelings of many within the community: “This article has done nothing but re-victimize an already traumatized sexual assault victim,” Raught-Krepp wrote. “Disgusting, unnecessary, repulsive. Have some compassion for the victim in this situation. If this were my daughter that you wrote about, you better believe that Slippery Rock would have a law suit on their hands.”

In response to the complaints, The Rocket published a statement called “Our View: The importance of media fully covering sexual assault cases.” The statement said the staff regretted that the article “may have caused some readers to suffer from negative emotions from previous traumatic experiences linked back to the graphic nature of the subject matter,” but it justified the publication of the article, explaining that it “is something we NEED to report on” to educate its readers on the definition of sexual assault.

The staff of The Penn feels that including such details was unnecessary and served little to no purpose. If the point of the graphic detail really was to educate its readers on the definition of sexual assault – and not to sensationalize a crime, which it denies – providing a clear definition of sexual assault would have served the purpose just as efficiently and less harmfully.

Section 21 of the “Associated Collegiate Press Model Code of Ethics for Collegiate Journalists” provides the following information on ethical journalism: “Profane and vulgar words are a part of everyday conversation, but not generally used for scholarly or general audience writing. … The staff may publish these words if the words are important to the reader’s understanding of the situation – the reality of life – or if the words help establish the character of the interviewee. The staff may decide to limit references to prevent the vulgar or profane language from overshadowing the other, more important facts of the story…”

The Penn feels that including the exact way the victim’s body was violated and the vulgar words the victim was called was unnecessary and took away from the other, more important facts of the story: that her life was threatened.

The Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics has a section listed “Minimize Harm.” Of the points in the section, The Penn feels that a majority of them were violated by the article. The following is the complete section.

“Journalists should:

• Balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance or undue intrusiveness.

• Show compassion for those who may be affected by news coverage. Use heightened sensitivity when dealing with juveniles, victims of sex crimes, and sources or subjects who are inexperienced or unable to give consent. Consider cultural differences in approach and treatment.

• Recognize that legal access to information differs from an ethical justification to publish or broadcast.

• Realize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than public figures and others who seek power, influence or attention. Weigh the consequences of publishing or broadcasting personal information.

• Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity, even if others do.

• Balance a suspect’s right to a fair trial with the public’s right to know. Consider the implications of identifying criminal suspects before they face legal charges.

• Consider the long-term implications of the extended reach and permanence of publication. Provide updated and more complete information as appropriate.”

The Nov. 6 article was not handled with an appropriate amount of sensitivity and provided graphic content which bothered many who read it. The article used direct quotes from the docket sheet and complaint, and while these documents are made public in Pennsylvania, this does not justify the broadcast of its explicit details.

Also, The Penn feels that The Rocket failed to consider the “implications of identifying criminal suspects before they face legal charges.” The status of the case, “Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Russel Braden Ferguson,” is still an active case, according to the online criminal docket sheet of the case.

A newspaper should stay unbiased in its reporting of stories and not use a specific story as a lesson to the public. The Rocket alienated its readership with the publication of the story, and again when it offered a statement that missed the mark and did not address why its readers were angered in the first place.

Wrote one commenter, Dalton Munnal, “Holy hell, you could not have possibly misunderstood the complaints any more than you did here.”

As such, The Penn feels that The Rocket’s statement acted unethically and did not “Respond quickly to questions about accuracy, clarity and fairness,” which is what the SPJ Code of Ethics urges newspapers to do.

The point is, news can be harmful if it’s misused, which we believe was the case with the publishing of the article and subsequent statement.

While we do not take any case of sexual assault lightly, we believe that the news of this case should have been dealt with more care, heightened sensitivity and the public and private interests in mind.