MIAMI, FL — When a 6-year-old girl was hit in the face by a foul ball and seriously injured during an Atlanta Braves game in 2010, the story seemed straightforward, if tragic.
But four years later, the story has forced Atlanta reporters to consider a complex ethical issue: when, and whether, to withhold the identity of a subject. It’s a question that, as journalists elsewhere are finding, is increasingly complicated in the age of the internet—especially when you’re dealing with subjects who may have compelling reasons for wanting their story told, and also for wanting not to be identified.
Christine Van Dusen happened to be at the game that night four years ago, and she wrote about what happened to the girl, and the family’s efforts to force the Braves to put up more nets to protect spectators, in the August issue of Atlanta magazine. The girl’s father, who is suing the Braves, agreed to be interviewed and photographed but insisted that his daughter and his wife not be named and that details about the girl’s current medical condition not be part of the story. (Readers do learn that the girl suffered multiple skull fractures, and saw numerous doctors including a neurosurgeon for months after the injury, though she also returned to school about a month later.)
Van Dusen agreed to those conditions, even though The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and at least one Atlanta television station had already named her.
“It seemed appropriate to not name the daughter, in part because of her age and because of the larger idea of protecting her identity in the long run,” Van Dusen said. “She has a pretty serious head injury. You never know, as time goes on, and the brain continues to develop, how that is going to work out for her.”
She told me the father was concerned about how his daughter’s teachers and peers might handle the information in the future.
“If people look her up, it didn’t seem fair, if she didn’t want to associate herself with this incident in the future that we would make that decision for her,” she said. “Fred [the father] was just very worried about how this was going to play out in the long run.”
Van Dusen knew that the AJC had named the girl in a 2011 article.
“I wanted to make my [own] decision, especially because more eyes might read my story. I felt my story might have more reach,” she said. “…The father was entrusting the story to me. I felt like it was the human thing and the professional thing” to do.
In fact, the AJC has stopped naming the girl, even as it follows the family’s lawsuit against the Braves. In a recent article, the paper explained to readers that it “knows the identity of the girl but is withholding her name at the family’s request.”
Richard Halicks, a senior editor at the paper, said he, other editors, and Bill Rankin, the reporter who covers federal courts, all discussed the issue when the suit was filed. The legal documents use only the family’s initials, and Rankin questioned the family’s attorney pretty extensively about the family’s desire to protect the girl’s privacy. (Note: My family has been friends with Rankin’s since before either of us was born.)
Halicks told me: “My instinct was to say to Bill, and I did, ‘We need to identify these people,’ because when somebody files a lawsuit and seeks a judgment, you identify them. Bill said, ‘I don’t think we should, because she’s a little girl.’ We’re journalists, but we’re people too. Bill’s a father. I’m a father too.”
Ultimately, Halicks said, the family’s concern “resonated with me and I think it resonates with readers.”
The Poynter Institute’s Kelly McBride, now vice president of academic programs and for years the organization’s ethics guru, can see arguments for and against naming the child.
“I think it’s reasonable to defer to the courts in this kind of situation and assume that the courts work for the public good,” she said. “That’s one way to make the decision.”
As McBride noted, calculations about how much personal information to disclose about a subject are changing in the age of Google searches and social media. So are calculations about which information to share, as Slate’s Will Oremus recently pointed out.
Oremus wrote about The New York Times’ decision to use only the first name of the main lead character of its acclaimed series on child poverty, and to do the same with a female college student whose allegation of rape was mishandled by campus officials. Both stories included pictures of the subjects, raising the question of why the Times bothered to shield their last names.