New mediums, new ethics doesn’t mean out with the old, in with the new

Opinion-column written for Reporting for the Public Good.

by Kristen Case | 5/9/14

It’s a changing media landscape.

At least, that’s what all my professors tell me. And all the professionals in the industry seem to agree. They write books about the new ethics of journalism because there are so many new and different things in the world of journalism they require new and different guidelines.

Obviously, that is a necessity. Journalists can’t just cross their fingers and hope that the ethics that helped their daily paper run smoothly apply to social media sites with no fuss. But out with the old, in with the new isn’t the way to go.

On April 14, 300 girls were herded out of their beds in the dead of night at a school in Chibok, in northeastern Nigeria. The militant group Boko Haram claimed responsibility for the kidnapping.

But I didn’t hear about these missing girls in April. I didn’t hear about them until late one night in early May, when I couldn’t sleep and was browsing popular tags on Tumblr and wondered what was trending about Nigeria.

It wasn’t until a Google search later that I found out what had happened, that the girls had been kidnapped. Because the first several posts on Tumblr under the Nigeria tag weren’t about the fact that the girls were missing. Those posts were about the fact that their names had been published.

‘That must be a joke,’ I thought. ‘Some random source made up a list of names and claimed it was real.’

And then I did another Google search.

The first relevant result that I found was some website called Feministing.com. On the page is a list of 180 first names, claiming to be courtesy of the Christian Association of Nigeria.

‘Okay,’ I thought. ‘This is clearly not a major news outlet, it is entirely possible that this isn’t a real list.’

Then I looked closer at the page and saw the updates. The first update reads: “Some readers have expressed concern that posting these names may put the girls at further risk. We take that concern seriously, but given that the list has been released by a Nigerian organization and has been reported on by both the Nigerian and U.S. media, we feel comfortable keeping it up here. […]”

No. way. I immediately jumped back over to Google to look for a major news organization that even hinted at these girls’ names. Shock and disgust filled me when I found one by ABC.

“The girls have names like Deborah, Saraya, Mary and Gloria. They are all teenagers, between the ages of 16 and 18...”

That makes these girls minors.

I went back to the list of names on Feministing to see if they matched up. They did. Those four names are in the first nine on the list. I then read update number two.

“Upon further reflection […], we’ve decided to adjust this list to include the first names of the girls only.”

Just let that sink in for a second.

These girls are mostly minors. They are all victims. They are being told that they are either going to be sold into marriages or as sex slaves. And some organization released their names to the media. And the media ate it up. They spit those names back out to the public, all for the extra attention it would bring their stories, published almost a month after the girls went missing.

Journalistic ethics say that you can release the name of a minor so long as it is lawfully obtained and truthfully reported. But that has always been about releasing the name of a criminal, or an alleged one, who also happens to be a minor.

The names of the victims, especially in sex crimes, rarely ever get released because sex crimes are still fraught with victim blaming. And there is no doubt that there are some people that are blaming these girls for being kidnapped, since they were away from home, getting an education that many don’t think is necessary.

The governor of Borno state’s spokesperson, Isa Gusau, said, “Abductions of girls are sometimes interpreted to mean automatic rape, [and] where the identity of those are revealed, they could be stigmatized even after being rescued.”