Column preview: Fairness to Stuttgart victims rightly trumps naming their rapist-father

One of the most read stories in Stars and Stripes this week was a disturbing account from Stuttgart of the court martial of an Army major convicted of raping his three young daughters over a period of years. The Stripes newsroom chose not to identify the major, on the grounds that it would identify his victims.

Though some commenters objected, I agree that fairness to the daughters trumped letting readers learn the identity of their rapist father. Withholding the names of victims of sexual assault -- deliberately omitting what would ordinarily be a fundamental fact -- was also consistent with policies and practices in most modern newsrooms.

The decision shows the larger meaning of fairness as a “news value.” It’s not just political balance. It’s how you treat the people you write about.

In the “Comments” attached to the story at stripes.com, one reader indignantly asserted that the omission was to protect the rapist – certain he saw a “good ‘ol boy” Army network doing for an officer what it would never do for an enlisted soldier. I’m familiar with that suspicion about the inequality of military justice, but it’s not even close in this case.

I’ll write more about this choice in a column next week.

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Ernie Gates

Stars and Stripes ombudsman

As a journalist for more than three decades, Ernie Gates has been a reporter, editor and news executive, including 10 years leading the enterprising print and digital newsroom of Tribune Co.’s Daily Press in Hampton Roads, Va.

News for and about service members, families and veterans has always been a key focus in Hampton Roads, where every branch of the armed services has a significant presence.

As vice president and editor, Ernie was responsible for all news, business, features and sports coverage and oversaw the editorial page. He also wrote the daily Feedback column, responding to readers’ questions and comments about coverage, news judgment, journalism ethics, taste and other issues. Representing the paper as a public speaker, he focused on News Values and Credibility.

He is a past president of the Virginia Press Association and a past chairman of Virginia Associated Press Newspapers. 

Since leaving the Daily Press in 2010, Ernie has stayed active in public affairs. He is a member of the Advisory Board of the Lewis B. Puller Jr. Veterans Benefits Clinic at the William & Mary Law School.  He is also serves on the Coalition Partners Advisory Panel of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government.

Ernie and his wife, Betsy, live in Williamsburg, Va. They have three adult children.

Ernie Gates can be reached at ombudsman@stripes.osd.mil or (202) 761-0587.

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The ombudsman

Congress created the post in the early 1990’s to ensure that Stars and Stripes journalists operate with editorial independence and that Stars and Stripes readers receive a free flow of news and information without taint of censorship or propaganda.

The ombudsman serves as an autonomous watchdog of Stars and Stripes’ First Amendment rights. Anyone who fears those rights are imperiled should alert the ombudsman.

The ombudsman is also the readers’ representative to the newsroom. Readers who think a journalistic issue or event was misrepresented or ignored or who feel complaints were not properly addressed by Stripes reporters or editors should contact the ombudsman.