A victim by any other name

3 Dec

Erin Beck, staff reporter for the Charleston Gazette-Mail, in downtown Charleston, Wednesday, August 19, 2015. Photo by Sam Owens.

Erin Beck, staff reporter for the Charleston Gazette-Mail, in downtown Charleston, Wednesday, August 19, 2015. Photo by Sam Owens.

When a victim calls The Charleston Gazette-Mail newsroom, editors know exactly who to hand the phone to: Erin Beck, a West Virginia University alumna.

She might be one of the youngest in the newsroom, but you wouldn’t know that from meeting her.

“I try to take the victim’s perspective whenever I write about crime,” she told me. “I try to think about racial and cultural disparities.”

Beck’s actual job is to cover the public safety beat—basically, if there’s a fire, a crime or anything that threatens your safety in and around the Charleston, West Virginia, she’ll be one of two people writing about it. Her daily checklist includes listening to the police scanner, writing breaking news stories and checking in with local authorities to stay up to date of what’s happening in West Virginia’s capital.

Therein lies her greatest ethical dilemma: naming victims. Of course, there’s tons of advice out there to help reporters figure out when to name victims. Folks at the Society of Professional Journalists, the Columbia Journalism Review and Poynter have all weighed in.

“Just because a name is in a criminal complaint, that doesn’t mean it’s okay to use it,” she said.

For Beck, though, it’s important to treat each story as its own

Like most reporters—at least most competent ones—Beck never names the victim of a sexual assault unless they specifically asked to be named. And she never names people who find themselves as victims of domestic violence. Some other reporters in her area, do.  ”People seem less hesitant about naming sexual assault victims,” she said “That says, to me, they think sexual assault is shameful or something and that that’s why they’re not naming them, versus other reasons not to.”

“It says, to me, that you’re leaving the name out for the wrong reason,” Beck said. “You leave the name out to prevent further victimization.”

Sometimes, like with a recent story she wrote about gender-based harassment online, she did name several victims of harassment.

The way Beck sees it, it’s important for journalists to understand why they choose to name a victim and why they withhold a name. In the end, it’s all about minimizing harm.

After studying journalism at WVU, she went on to pursue a master’s in public health. She found herself then working at a domestic violence agency in Clarksburg. She worked there for a few years, becoming more familiar with talking to victims and their families. By chance, she returned to journalism. But her journey into crime reporting would take a backseat to other beats. As a staff writer at The Exponent Telegram, she covered business, local government and wrote plenty of feature stories. “When they were moving me from beat to beat, I always made it clear that I did not want to do crime,” she admits. And then a job opened up in Charleston.

Yep, for crime.

Now, after writing for the Gazette-Mail for a little more than a year, she’s happy where she’s at. Ever the devil’s advocate, I pushed back on Beck to see just how must she had thought through her plan of naming victims.

What if police reported that a famous politician in West Virginia—someone that everyone knows—regularly battered and emotionally abused his wife. Following Beck’s plan, she would write the story and withhold the victim’s name.

“But wouldn’t even writing the story in the first place give her identity away?” I asked.

“Well… I guess it would.”

“So the story is obviously newsworthy,” I said, back tracking a bit.

“I think I would have to sit down and have an honest conversation with her.”

It’s there, between the finesse of her writing and the fast-typing fingers, where Beck’s greatest strength lays. Above all, she is an empathetic reporter. When a victim calls up the newsroom, connecting with the person on the other end of the line is Beck’s first concern. That’s something you can’t teach.

I’ve met plenty of other reporters, all of whom I’d consider generally good people, who’ve been hardened by working in the field for so long. It’s hard to not be hardened, writing about death, rape and abuse all day.

Somehow, she isn’t hardened.

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