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Editors warned over ‘jigsaw identification’ in sex cases

Editors are being told to remember the rules when it comes to reporting sex cases after a series of complaints involving regional titles.

The Press Complaints Commission has published a guidance note following five complaints that have been upheld over the past year regarding victims being identified in newspaper reports – four of which were directed at local and regional newspapers.

Although three of the newspapers concerned did not actually name the victims, they included other details which could lead to so-called jigsaw identification.

Local newspapers against which complaints have been upheld over the past year included:

  • Staffordshire Newsletter. A grandfather complained that information together with a photograph of a man convicted of sex abuse could lead to the victim being identified by implying the connection between the accused and his victim
  • Southern Daily Echo.  A woman complained that her teenage daughter could be identified through the newspaper’s report which included her age and the dates of the offence. It also alluded to the man’s profession and named his place of work.
  • The Courier, Dundee.  Two women said their daughters were identified as victims of sexual assault through an article which contained the names of the streets the girls lived on and their ages.
  • Aldershot News and Mail.  In this case, branded “shocking” by the PCC, two female victims of sexual assault were actually identified by name.

PCC director Stephen Abell said the anonymity of victims of sexual assault is under the Editor’s Code of Practice is “absolutely paramount.”

He said:  “Following several recent cases in which the Commission has found breaches of the Code, it felt it was important to produce the note to minimise the risk of further mistakes being made.

“Although breaches are almost always inadvertent (and can result from the inclusion of a seemingly innocuous detail), the consequences can be so severe that it is right that the commission has taken the initiative to draw together its thinking in this area.

“This forms part of the Commission’s on-going work to raise standards throughout the industry.”

Other earlier cases cited by the PCC included an article in the Kidderminster Shuttle which named a defendant who had met his victim at a churchyard.

Although the newspaper didn’t name the church, the complainant said that the references to a church would have made it clear how her daughter and the defendant knew each other.

In another upheld complaint, a sexual assault victim had suffered a specific injury during a lesson given by the accused who had been his teacher.

Even though it had happened years before, people who went to school with the man would have been able to identify him in the article in the Barking and Dagenham Post.

Other cases saw a complaint from Thames Valley Police about the likelihood of a teenage victim being identified following an article in the Metro which contained information about a specific form of cancer she had suffered from.

The press watchdog said the aim of issuing the new guidance was to remind editors of the Code of Practice’s provisions in that area and to explain how the requirements of the code can best be met.

16 comments

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  • September 20, 2011 at 9:16 am
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    How idiotic is the Aldershot News & Mail and The Courier? Who is writing for these newspapers because they surely can’t have been trained.

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  • September 20, 2011 at 9:48 am
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    An independent newspaper in Staffordshire once named a man found guilty of incest – yes, his name and the crime – saying it involved his daughters. And there was a picture of his house to go with it!

    See what happens when you have staff who are poorly trained, or not trained at all.

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  • September 20, 2011 at 9:54 am
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    In most sex offence reports, the golden rule is not to give the age of the victim – especially in a family sex case. The Court of Appeal said in 2005 that publishing the age of the victim often provides a composite picture of her or his identity to those who know the family. (See page 106 in McNae’s Essential Law for Journalists)

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  • September 20, 2011 at 9:55 am
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    These stupid and dangerous mistakes are all the proof that’s needed that cuts are affecting quality. Proper training and experience – that includes the reporters, their newseditors, editors and subs – is the best defence against these errors. Such lax attitudes are indicative of newspapers whose owners don’t understand (or care about) the industry in which they exist or the communities they serve. How sad.

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  • September 20, 2011 at 11:04 am
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    IT’S easy (and a symptom of modern life, it seems) to blandly call people you don’t know “stupid” and “idiotic” when mistakes are made.
    We don’t know the full circumstances of these mistakes, or the professional status of the individuals concerned. My guess is that most if not all of these papers have professional and caring staff somewhere along the line who are mortified to see these issues highlighted.
    We all need to learn from these mistakes and realise, however careful you are, there is a huge chunk of “there but for the grace of god go I” about it. There’s always something in our business that’s ready to jump up and bite you in the nether regions.

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  • September 20, 2011 at 11:51 am
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    The full circumstances of these ‘mistakes’ are irrelavant Parvenu. The reality is that they should not have happened. These ‘mistakes’ have huge consequences for the victims involved and their recovery from what happened to them. I’m a photographer and don’t write the stories, but still know that this shouldn’t have happened, that the victims should have not been identified, and to find out that papers are publishing these things, I find appalling, and it leaves me gobsmacked. It’s been written by a journalist, been subbed, been seen by the news editor, then the editor must have had some input too, its gone through levels of management and STILL hasn’t been pulled up on? If they can’t run a paper properly then get the hell out and get a new job. It’s people’s lives being turned upside down by these idiots.

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  • September 20, 2011 at 12:07 pm
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    Get the PCC to fine these papers. Or the reporters. Then I doubt any more errors will fall through the net. The PCC is a soft, limp birch twig

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  • September 20, 2011 at 1:43 pm
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    It’s not necessarily the reporters who should take the full blame though.

    Yes, these are basic, stupid mistakes. But why, for God’s sake, didn’t subs or editors pick up on such basic error such as naming a sex offence victim?
    If they had, the mistake would never have made it to press, and they would (or should) have made damn sure the reporter didn’t do it again.
    Bear in mind, they may well have been a trainee, and while they shouldn’t be making the mistake, they should not be solely relied on, independent of others, to get the legalities correct.

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  • September 20, 2011 at 2:00 pm
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    Catherine, if (a recent true story I read on htfp) an experienced, excellent reporter on a regional daily makes a bad mistake and gets two defendants mixed up, and consequently names a man as a sex offender when in reality he was a petty criminal in court for something else, then no amount of news editing, subbing (subs don’t exist any more, aint you heard?) or attention by the editor is likely to unearth that error before it gets onto a page. That’s the point I was making. I am not trying to excuse or minimise the effect of naming victims in a sex abuse case – of course that’s awful – I just think without knowing the set-ups of these papers or the people involved then using easy terms of general abuse like “idiots” is wrong.

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  • September 20, 2011 at 2:13 pm
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    @Catherine, Cardiff: “It’s been written by a journalist, been subbed, been seen by the news editor, then the editor must have had some input too, it’s gone through levels of management and STILL hasn’t been pulled up on?”
    Hmm…Reporter > Sub > News Editor > Editor? Well, that might have happened 20 years ago – perhaps. In these straitened times, it’s more likely that the copy has been written by a less-than-veteran reporter, directly into a templated page, glanced at by a senior staffer and sent on its way. But your point is still a fair one.
    That apart, there seems to be a bit of confusion in this report about just what is meant by “jigsaw identification”. The cases cited in the HTFP article seem to be instances of reporters and/or copy handlers simply not being rigorous enough in applying Clauses 7 and 11 of the PCC Code Of Practice. http://www.pcc.org.uk/assets/111/Code_of_Practice_2011_A4.pdf
    Back in the days when I was using a wax tablet and stylus to write copy, I was given to understand that the risk of “jigsaw identification” arose when several news outlets took differing lines in the course of reporting a case that featured someone who had been a victim of a sex assault: i.e. paper X says the victim was 23 and worked as an administrator; paper Y leaves this out and says the victim was dark haired, a keen cyclist and lived in the Oxdown area; paper Z leaves all of these out and says the victim was an only child who had lived in the same street all their lives. Thus, the victim is, potentially, instantly identifiable if all of these strands are pulled together.
    I have always been under the impression that the PCC expectation is that the editorial staff who originate and/or edit copy must anticipate the possible consequences when they have one or more rival outlets on their patch. Common practice has been to communicate with each other – sometimes through gritted teeth – and agree a consistent line. When that is not possible, or if one outlet has published already, then any others who have not yet published – if they are sensible – will stick with the identification line already taken by whoever published first.
    Of course, this is far more difficult in the age of multi-platform publishing but, ultimately, the burden falls on the editorial staff involved. Quite simply, if you don’t want to find your boss looming over you, puce-faced, waving what seems to be a letter bearing the PCC logo, then it’s a case of CYA when handling sex assault stories – check, check, check and, if in doubt, leave it out.

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  • September 20, 2011 at 2:19 pm
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    Hang on.

    There’s nothing “jigsaw” about NAMING sex attack victims, is there.

    That’s not a bit of bad luck, hard cheese old boy, there but for the grace of god etc etc.

    It is a monumental error that the office cat should have been able to spot.

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  • September 20, 2011 at 2:26 pm
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    “It is a monumental error that the office cat should have been able to spot. ”

    It was made redundant.

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  • September 20, 2011 at 2:42 pm
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    Not the cat as well?

    Tell me they spared the cat.

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  • September 20, 2011 at 3:37 pm
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    It’ll take a costly outcome before newspapers deal seriously with this issue. I know of one publisher that cancelled its insurance against such blunders on cost grounds … and that was before it saved even more by getting rid of the last line of defence, the subs.

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  • September 22, 2011 at 9:29 am
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    The Oxford Mail printed a name of a sex case victim about 11 years ago by mistake – with a subbing desk of 10, a news editor, assistant editor, community editor and editor. Not just down to resource…

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  • September 22, 2011 at 3:49 pm
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    From: http://www.thisisexeter.co.uk/Rapist-husband-tortured-wife/story-13379722-detail/story.html

    A JEALOUS husband who tortured and raped his wife in revenge for her starting an affair with an Exeter policeman was warned he could be jailed indefinitely.

    The 50-year-old male nurse from East Devon subjected his 40-year-old wife to a three-hour ordeal in which he humiliated her before raping her twice.

    This is what happens when you do away with the court reporter and don’t have any subs!

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