Girl’s foul-ball injury raises a question: When should the media withhold a name?

News organizations in Atlanta abide by a family's request

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.

“What good does it do to leave out a subject’s last name when you’ve already so clearly identified her to anyone who’s ever met her?” Oremus wrote. “And then I realized: [They] aren’t trying to hide her identity from anyone who’s ever met her. They’re trying to hide it from all the people who never have. That is, they’re shielding her identity from Google.”

Van Dusen told me she considered the same issue in her story.

“Used to be, you’d have to have a lot of time on your hands to find information like this years later,” she said. “Now it’s almost too simple.”

Of course, whether to shield a subject at all is often controversial, and the decision depends on the details of a specific situation. McBride, for one, wonders about shielding a child because she might have suffered brain damage.

“There is no shame in being brain-damaged,” she said. “When you ask for someone to be protected, you assume that something shameful needs to be protected.” (Again, the condition of the girl injured in Atlanta is not publicly known.)

Paula Simons, a columnist at the Edmonton Journal in Canada, made a similar point in an interview. Simons comes to the issue from a unique perspective—her husband suffered a traumatic brain injury in a car accident several years ago.

Simons is also part of a prize-winning team of journalists at the Journal and the Calgary Herald who encountered these themes from the other direction. The papers’ series on the deaths of children in foster care prompted legislators in the province of Alberta to undo a publication ban that prohibited anyone from identifying children who died in foster care.

“The government said it protected the privacy of families grieving after the loss of a child; critics said it protected the child welfare system from meaningful scrutiny of its worst failures,” wrote reporter Karen Kleiss. Journalists and even the parents of the dead children could go to jail for violating the old ban.

Of course, there’s a huge difference between prior restraint by the government and journalists withholding a name out of discretion. But for Simons, the internet presents an argument for more transparency, not more privacy protection.

“In a social media universe, it’s one thing for the AJC to decide it’s going to do this, but you cannot stop Facebook and Twitter. I think it’s better to have the accurate and correct information in the mainstream media vectors rather than have people swap rumors in the social media bilge.”

One of the journalistic challenges for the Canadian papers was the inability to put a name and face to victims, in order to make the issue more immediate for readers. That’s an obstacle the Times surmounted with its unusual approach to anonymity.

It might be another consideration in Atlanta, where foul-ball injuries are not just one family’s tragedy but a public policy issue. Van Dusen noted that the Braves are building a new stadium and touting it as having a “higher percentage of seats closer to the field than any other ballpark in Major League Baseball.” Van Dusen and Rankin have both reported that the Braves are fighting any effort to get them to install more netting to protect spectators, beyond the screening that’s traditionally in place behind home plate.

Putting a name and a face to a child who was seriously injured might affect the way some people understand that debate. But does she deserve to be forever identified that way. 

“I think most news organizations are willing to err on the side of protecting a child, even if it’s just from humiliation,” Poynter’s McBride said. “In the case of a teenager, we know that humiliation can be much harder to bear than it would be for an adult.”

At the AJC, there are no plans to take down or alter the original story that named the girl hit by the baseball. It was written in 2011, after yet another child was hit by a foul ball; the reporter interviewed others in Atlanta who had also been injured in the stands.

“The first story we did had almost a glancing reference to the child and her mother and it didn’t occur to me that naming them might be an issue,” the AJC’s Halicks told me. “If it’s been up since 2011, I don’t see how taking it down now would help.”

At CJR, we’ve decided not to link to that story. Like McBride, we can see arguments on either side. But we decided to respect the decision the AJC and Atlanta magazine made, and, after hearing their reasons, to trust their judgment as the media closest to the situation.

And we’ll give Van Dusen the final word: “I just don’t think this should follow her for the rest of her life.”

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Susannah Nesmith is CJR’s correspondent for Florida and Georgia. She is a freelance writer based in Miami with more than 25 years working for regional and national outlets. Follow her on Twitter @susannahnesmith. Tags: , , , , , ,