I am a firm believer in the Constitution of the United States and the Bill of Rights. I have great pride that we have a right to a trial by jury, protections from unreasonable searches and seizures, due process of law, and of course, the freedom of speech and of press.
But as Peter Parker's Uncle Ben wisely imparted in the pages of Spiderman: "With great power, comes great responsibility." Sadly, that lesson was lost with the publication by City Paper on May 14, 2014 in an article boldly announcing "CP Photographer Accused of Raping His Daughter" (Mobtown Beat). While it is important to acknowledge the voices of the youngest victims, a level of dignity and decency is required to protect all parties.
Certainly, City Paper has a First Amendment right to share public information contained in court files. But that right comes with a responsibility to make wise judgments and to protect certain dignities. The media traditionally avoids printing salacious details in cases involving victims of sexual assault and child abuse. Sensitive information that could impact the outcome of a trial and the safety of witnesses are also traditionally avoided. I respect the decisions of the Baltimore Sun, the more responsible parent company of City Paper, not to run such stories in detail out of respect for victims, children, families, and numerous detectives and prosecutors working on these cases. The Society of Professional Journalists prints a Code of Ethics stating that:
Journalists should show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage. Use special sensitivity when dealing with children and inexperienced sources or subjects; to be cautious about identifying juvenile suspects or victims of sex crimes; and to show good taste. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity.
Unfortunately, with the publication of this story, such discretion and adherence to ethical standards did not occur. The entire police report involving the alleged rape of a child was transcribed into the article. Merely omitting the child's name does nothing to obscure identity in the digital age when mother and father are both named, as well as witnesses with their places of employment. City Paper refers to the alleged perpetrator as "award-winning" twice in the article, and the only quote in the story comes from his attorney who claims that "false allegations in cases such as this are not unusual." If City Paper had checked the accuracy of such a statement, the reporter would have discovered that only four percent of all unsubstantiated reports in allegations of abuse when parents separate were intentionally false and that none of these false allegations were made by children, as Trocmé and Bala shared in their 2005 research study, "Child Abuse and Neglect." The truth of the matter is that nationally one in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused by the time they're 18. In fact, Baltimore Child Abuse Center sees approximately 1,000 such cases annually.
It is peculiar as to why this specific case would get so much real estate in City Paper when these crimes, unfortunately, happen each and every day but are rarely reported on. And one should question the decision to publish a story that so blatantly supports the case of one of their staff members, using the newspaper to potentially influence the jury and perhaps even to discourage the child victim from participating in this matter to avoid further media coverage. City Paper's indirect attack on this victim may not only lead to the child feeling unprotected, but it also re-victimizes the child and has the potential to cause significant emotional and psychological trauma. I shudder at the thought of other child victims of rape and abuse and their parents, now reluctant to come forward for fear of seeing their case detailed in black and white on the pages of City Paper. Media cooperated with Baltimore County police this week when a man barricaded himself inside WMAR for fear of alerting the suspect to police activity; if given the opportunity, would City Paper have published details of the crime scene just to sell papers?
This is yellow journalism at its worst. Shame on you, City Paper, for making a very poor decision in running such a biased story in what looks like an attempt to tamper with an active criminal prosecution involving one of your own. While your application of the First Amendment enables you to make such a poor decision, it also affords the rest of us with a plethora of other choices when it comes to news. And so I will choose and encourage others to choose to exercise their freedoms by using City Paper to line the cat's litter box and select other news sources to patronize and read instead.
Finally, I implore City Paper to issue an apology to child victims of sexual abuse and their families and to commit to the Society of Professional Journalists' Code of Ethics as a means of ensuring journalistic integrity in the future. Please contact me if you are interested in learning more about the dynamics of these difficult cases and their impact on children and Baltimore. I look forward to the conversation.
Executive Director, Baltimore Child Abuse Center
I am writing to express my concern and disgust concerning the article "CP Photographer Accused of Raping His Daughter." I am the President of the Board of Directors for the Baltimore Child Abuse Center. I am also a mother, and your article raised every protective instinct in me in both capacities. I would like to know what City Paper's policy is with regard to publishing the identity of children who are victims of child sex abuse. The article does everything to identify the victim, but publish the victim's name. It is intellectually dishonest to think that this article protects the victim's privacy in any way.
Moreover, I fear that any individual who is a victim of sex abuse would see this article and decide not to disclose their trauma for fear of being outed in City Paper. I also fail to see how this article advances the interests of the public's right to know verses the invasion of a child victim's right to privacy. The mere fact that the individual accused of this crime is an "award winning" photographer for City Paper does not make this more of a story than the hundreds of other cases of sexual abuse that City Paper fails to luridly write about in any given year.
If the purpose of this article was to re-victimize a child victim of sexual abuse, then congratulations, you have accomplished your goal. If the purpose of this article was to influence other victims to think twice before disclosing that they are victims of a horrible crime, then congratulations again. If, on the other hand, the purpose of this article was to publish an informative, neutral article about the impact of sexual abuse on its victims and on our city, then you have failed miserably.
As I teach my children every day-if you make a mistake own it and correct it. I am inviting you and your staff to the Baltimore Child Abuse Center to take a tour and to learn about the wonderful things that BCAC does to help heal the families who come through our doors. I also invite you to write an apology to the child victims of sexual abuse and to their families. It is the least you can do.
Catherine Schuster Pascale
President, Board of Directors Baltimore Child Abuse Center
Last week, Van Smith, who reports for City Paper (owned by the Baltimore Sun), authored an article about a 14-year-old child being raped. He included grisly details from charging documents that this child shared in the perceived safety of a forensic interview. He included her age, mother's full name, father's full name, and the county in which she lives. When challenged about the integrity of publicly outing a 14-year-old rape victim, Smith and his editor, Evan Serpick, had the gall to say "we didn't print her name"-as if we do not live in an era of the Internet, where her name could easily be obtained with the details provided.
It is important to note the fact that the alleged perpetrator in this case is a City Paper photographer. Now, maybe City Paper felt it had to report on the story so they wouldn't appear biased because the accused is on their staff, but there are ways-used by respectable journalists every day-to report on sex crimes, while truly protecting the identity of the victim. However, that did not happen in this case. If the intention was to shake up, expose and embarrass a child victim who will soon testify at trial about her victimization, put the accused in the best light possible, and attempt to put doubt in potential jurors' minds, then the mission was accomplished.
In Baltimore, we have all been called to operate from a victim-centered approach that aims to restore and make victims of sexual violence whole. This renewed focus came about in 2010, when Baltimore Sun crime reporter Justin Fenton wrote a series of articles that uncovered the fact that the Baltimore Police Department was leading the nation in "unfounding" over 30 percent of rapes reported every year. While difficult for the department, Fenton's investigative reporting initiated a series of important reforms in investigation and the treatment of victims that continue today.
As a result of these findings, much was done to correct the process for handling sexual assault cases. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake ordered an audit, command was changed, the standard operating procedures were improved, advocates were incorporated into the criminal justice response for the first time, ongoing case review was instituted to include outside Sexual Assault Response Team (SART) partners, and I was hired as the SART Coordinator.
Quite frankly, I've often thanked Fenton for bringing attention to the way rape victims were treated. It was the best of what reporting can do for the public and for social justice. Last week, with Van Smith's article, we saw the worst.
The Baltimore SART consists of dedicated individuals from the Mayor's Office on Criminal Justice, the Baltimore Child Abuse Center, the Baltimore State's Attorney's Office, the Baltimore Police Department, Mercy Medical Center, TurnAround, Inc., the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault, the University of Maryland Children's Hospital, and the Baltimore Police Laboratory. What Van Smith did last week in the free and widely distributed City Paper was unacceptable. It undermines all of the work that this dedicated group does each day to ensure victims are treated with respect and dignity, especially those who are children, and to encourage them to come forward to report what is already the most underreported crime.
And, by the way, it's not true that "false allegations in cases such as this are not unusual," as Smith quoted the suspect's attorney as saying. If you're going to quote something said as a fact, you should fact check. Sexual abuse and assaults are falsely reported at the same rate as other crimes, ranging from two to 10 percent.
I, and many other members of the Baltimore City SART, have made phone calls to Editor Evan Serpick to express our deep concern about this article, but none have been returned. So, we use this age-old format to ask that City Paper take down this damaging article from their website.
There must be accountability for such callous disregard to the emotional and physical well-being of a child, not to mention for the interference of a pending criminal trial and the endangerment of trial witnesses. Sexual abuse victims deserve an apology from City Paper. Please make it clear to them and your readership that this was a grave lapse in judgment and that it will never happen again.
Baltimore City SART Coordinator
Mayor's Office on Criminal Justice
Editor's Note : City Paper takes great care in the way we report stories involving allegations of sexual abuse, particularly those that involve minors. In this case, we felt a responsibility to report on the allegations against Ryan Stevenson, a longtime contributing photographer to City Paper, who has also contributed to the New York Times, the Baltimore Sun, and other outlets. If we ignored the allegations, it might have looked as if we were doing so because of the paper's relationship with him. As the story stated, we omitted the alleged victim's name, even though it is available in the public charging documents, in an effort to protect her privacy. We included her mother's name because Mr. Stevenson has another daughter of approximately the same age with a different mother, and we wanted to be clear that she was not involved in the case. We included a detailed description of the allegations against Mr. Stevenson because, in doing so generally (including in the cover story in the same issue, "Speak No Evil"), we hope to impart the true nature of sexual abuse.
In the days after we published this story, we have had many conversations with people who have expressed concerns, including Mr. Rosenberg, Ms. Schuster Pascale, and Ms. Brantner. They have been useful conversations, as we heard and understood their concerns and were able to explain our own policies and editing process. We look forward to continuing those conversations.