A question of ethics

After The Northerner covered the story of a victim who reported she was forced into a car, driven off campus and brutally raped March 16, we received praise from some and condemnation from others for how we handled it.

The disapprovals typically fell into one of two camps. One side decried publishing the story altogether. The other view condemned our publishing the obscenities from the incident report, which was obtained from the Highland Heights Police Department.

But we ask that all readers take into account that, before The Northerner reported it, we considered those same ethical questions.

Let’s not equivocate here. It was our decision to make and we made it – and we stand by it.

But we considered the effects of printing the article before it ran. Every fact within the incident report was discussed in- depth between several senior editors. We went over each parcel of information and debated including it versus excluding it.

In the end, we agreed to publishing every piece of information possible that would not identify the victim.

Why? Because, generally the more information available to the public, the better. Some facts were withheld because they could help identify the victim, such as the apartment complex and community involvement.

As for running the story itself, we were adamant that the university community had the right to know what was happening on campus. We understood that the victim could, and probably would, see the headline at the top of the front page.

But so will many other students, who can then take more precautions, be more vigilant or, most importantly, provide the police with possible leads.

If you look around NKU, especially after dark, you can tell that young women on this campus are more aware of themselves since the story.

Among the other bits of information to put in, we also discussed the inclusion of the profanities. We considered what it added to the story, versus the appropriateness of providing those quotes.

We chose to publish.

We considered that it certainly courted “shock value” emotions, that such words would likely not be printed in other publications, and also considered and what the victim would feel if she read those obscenities.

Firstly, it was not about shock value. We did not start the story with the F-bomb, nor did we put it in a headline.

Instead, we placed it in the story at the part where it happened. We considered that giving this information did not disclose the victim’s identity.

It did, however, serve to remind the student body of just how brutal the rape was, and it helped show how cruel the alleged attack was.

We did put an editor’s note at the beginning of the article specifying the paragraphs where the obscenities appeared. We understood that some people would not want to see the profanities. We wanted to let our audience know that there were two obscenities within the article. If readers did not want to read the offensive language, they were warned beforehand.

Regional and national newspapers are read by people of all ages, and both children, adults and senior citizens watch television stations for news throughout the day.

By contrast, The Northerner’s readership consists mainly of students, faculty, staff, alumni and students’ parents – a mix familiar with said obscenities.

Also, newspaper and television programs provide warnings whenever they have a graphic segment. They warn watchers ahead of time not to watch or read if they wanted to avoid the graphic parts.

The Northerner followed this tradition, understanding that there may be some, including the victim, who wouldn’t want to see such words. Thus, we printed the warning at the top of the article.

Nor is running the obscenity breaking new ground. The F-word has appeared in our publication before, such as when we covered on the assault on Diego Varela or the report of anti-gay messages written on a gay residential assistant’s door. It is only permitted when it relates an important fact, helping to inform the readers of a critical aspect of a story. It is not permitted simply for “shock value.”

Make no mistake. We are not apologizing for our actions – indeed, we stand by them.

But, like many ethical questions of “Was it right?”, there is no wrong answer. We simply wanted to explain that we did discuss the ethics of printing the story. We did not do it simply, blindly or half-heartedly. We wrote that story with care, humility and objectivity.

We hope that you understand. Thank you for your time.