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posted: 6/5/2014 1:01 AM

Discretion is the better part of reporting on shocking crime

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There are innumerable media issues arising from the disturbing Wisconsin case of two 12-year-old girls who stabbed a friend nearly to death hoping to satisfy a fictional web ghoul. One that jumped out at me was that The Associated Press, the primary service the Daily Herald uses for nonlocal news, is not naming either the suspects or the victim.

This of course is not necessarily the most prominent point of discussion regarding this story. Important reflections need to take place on such notions as literary freedom, discriminating between fact and fiction on the web, the importance of monitoring children's use of the web and many more.

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But AP's initial prudence in this case, which has not been shared by all media covering this story, aligns very closely to the thinking of Daily Herald editors. There are exceptions to every rule, but in general, our attitude toward sensitive stories with the potential for a long-lasting impact on innocent or vulnerable individuals is to err on the side of the individuals.

AP was not bound by law, nor by an industry ethics code, to withhold the names of the children involved in this case. Because of the brutality of the crime, the two girls arrested initially have been charged as adults, and many other news outlets identified them without restraint.

But the attorney for one of the girls indicated he may seek to have the case moved to juvenile court, where the names of suspects are withheld both by law and by the ethics of most reputable news organizations. Clearly naming the girls now would effectively negate the protection of their identity that juvenile law intends. Their names once published could not be unpublished.

So AP has so far remained cautious, and I'm glad.

Knowing the identity of criminal suspects is important, certainly, as at times is knowing the identity of the victims of violent crime. It helps us better understand the import and context of a story when we know the deeper background of its central figures -- though I should emphasize that victims deserve, and our policies require, an even higher level of sensitivity.

In this case, the family lives of the suspects -- including the reactions of their parents, some reported to be deeply remorseful -- can hardly be separated from the circumstances of the crime and no doubt will find their way into the reporting. But to the degree possible, it's also important to remember that this isn't just a bizarre and shocking story, not just a potential commentary on contemporary American society. It is also a deeply personal tragedy involving the most immature of subjects.

The time may come when the identities of the girls involved in this horrifically sad episode will be important, and certainly if they are ultimately tried as adults, they will face many other treatments normally reserved for adults. But for now, they are 12-year-old girls caught up in unimaginable events much larger and much more far-reaching than they could ever have considered. They deserve a measure of cautious discretion.

Jim Slusher, jslusher@dailyherald.com, is an assistant managing editor at the Daily Herald. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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