Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Teaching ethics by being unethical?

Journalists need to learn the ethics of reporting, we can all agree on that. But in attempting to teach an object lesson on victim privacy, professor Al Salvato crossed the line into what I believe is unethical territory himself. In his role as an instructor at the University of Cincinnati, he handed out a police report listing the name, address, phone number, height, weight, and eye color, as well as all the details of the assault, of a 17-year-old rape survivor.

Then one of the students called her.

The student appears to have been a friend, not a predator or a "true crime" freak getting off on someone's victimization. But that's strictly luck.

No one seems to know whether the report was actually a public record, nor how Salvato obtained a copy of it. The professor died and the university quickly settled an invasion of privacy lawsuit out of court.

From the Cincinnati Enquirer:
Jon Hughes, director of journalism at UC, said Salvato told him he'd handed out the report to illustrate how real reporters deal with such sensitive issues. As a rule, the media tends not to report names of sexual victims.

"It was his impression, at least initially, of what students should not report - it was used in that vein," said Hughes, who's not aware of any other instructors using real police reports at UC. "It's a very curious situation."

Hand said the legal issue doesn't really matter. He said UC settled because it didn't want to extend (name removed by Terry)'s grief.

"It might have been, it might not have been" a public record, Hand said. "But it was not used in an appropriate manner."

They "hope something like this will never happen again."

They "hope." I hardly know what to say to that. This young woman was made a victim a second time by a man who apparently never stopped to think that he was dealing with the life of a real person. A person who'd already had all control stripped from her once. In an effort to make a point, he exposed her pain to a group of strangers, giving them intimate details they had no business knowing. In attempting to teach sensitivity, he did the most insensitive thing I can imagine. There's no excuse for that.

She may have gotten a monetary settlement, but was denied the things she really wanted. An apology and control of her life back.

Now that's a crime.

(cross-posted at I See Invisible People)

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