Editorial: Unflinching reporting needed in sex crime cases

When I took my first real journalism job, I taped a Bible verse to my cubicle to remind me, on the really difficult days, why I do what I do: “For whatever is hidden is meant to be disclosed, and whatever is concealed is meant to be brought out into the open.”

That is what really good journalism does. It brings to light what politicians would like to bury in a budget line, it exposes toxic chemicals big business leach underground and it brings to light crimes committed in the cover of darkness.

It hurts to expose an infection to the light of day. It hurts the infection. It also hurts the people affected by the infection. This is especially true for the men, women and children affected by the plague of rape and other sexual crimes - an infection far too prevalent in our society.

In Cortland, we are blessed to have many zealous, big-hearted heroes who work to heal those injured by these horrific, life-altering crimes. Kristen Beard of the Child Advocacy Center is undeterrable in providing for the needs of those who suffered an attack. District Attorney Patrick Perfetti and his team of assistant district attorneys zealously prosecute the perpetrators. The Cortland Police Department protects citizens with commitment and determination. 

But these crimes still occur. And they need to be brought into the light.

As a reporter, that’s where I come in. How can a society that cannot name its problems ever hope to solve them? And how can a problem be named if it is not known? As James Madison, the major framer of our Constitution and our fourth President, said, “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own governors, must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives. A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy or perhaps both.” It is a tragedy that sexual crimes occur at all, but it would be a farce and a tragedy if our city could not publicly admit these crimes occur, the streets they occur on, what the crimes are and the age and gender the perpetrator targeted.

District Attorney Patrick Perfetti and Kristen Beard, Coordinator of the Child Advocacy Center, recently urged local media outlets to use caution when writing about sexual crimes. Their letter, I believe in my heart, is laced with empathy, concern and care for those attacked in a sexual crime. It also suggests reporters adopt policies the Associated Press, and this reporter, already espouses: to withhold the name of the person attacked in a crime, especially sexual crimes:

Cortland County District Attorney's Office Addresses Local Media Coverage of Sex Crimes by Peter Blanchard on Scribd

Even when I know the name of the person attacked I make it a rule not to use it in my articles. After all, I write crime stories to protect the community — and future, potential victims — as well as to hold our local justice system accountable for proceeding with a fair and just arrest and trial. Releasing the name of the injured person does not further either purpose -- except in rare and compelling circumstances.

One of those circumstances is when a person testifies in court about their attack. When a person testifies in open court — for any reason — he or she must recite their full name for the record. This is to satisfy the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution: the right of the accused to confront the witnesses against him. In these cases, the accused’s constitutional rights to a just and fair trial — and the press’ obligation to hold local judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys accountable by chronicling the proceedings — outweigh the individual witness’ right to privacy. Thankfully, in many cases, including two recent Cortland cases,the person testifying about the attack against him or her is doing so because he or she wants to speak publicly in order to see justice done.

These fearless men, women and children inspire others to cast off the misplaced shackles of shame from their souls and face their new lives with renewed inner strength.

At least they have for this woman.

Yes, I, too was subjected to a sexual crime. When I was 7, my 19-year-old cousin kissed, fondled and removed some of my clothes while in an upstairs bedroom at our grandparents’ home on Clayton Avenue in Vestal. After my clothes were back on, she took “glamour shots” of me with her new camera. The shame I felt crippled me and kept me from telling anyone for years. It made me feel dirty and guilty; it affected healthy sexual relations I had as an adult. Worse, the fact my cousin has Downs Syndrome and cannot actually consent to sexual activity herself made me feel as though I was responsible.

The reality is, what happened is not my fault. I now choose to see what happened to me in its stark reality and live in the light of day. I choose to live shameless. I hope you do, too.

Sarah Bullock covers crime and breaking news for the Cortland Voice. Email her at [email protected].

Have a different opinion? Send letters to the editor to [email protected].