Maria Henson was a editorial writer for the Herald Leader of Kentucky in 1991 when she exposed a systemic failure of Lexington law enforcement and government to protect habitually abused wives from their husbands. As the articles present, these were women who had gone by the book in seeking out help from authorities, taking every single measure they could find to try and secure protection, to no avail. Police were often lackadaisical in their responses to domestic violence to the point where she said they put a search out for a husband carrying a crowbar with intent to kill his wife that carried roughly the same weight as neighbors playing loud music.
Henson was faced with a difficult dilemma after interviewing the surviving abused wives which was whether to use their real names in her editorial articles. As my earlier post quoted from Henson at the event,
“I wondered, if I put these women’s names in the paper, am I putting them in danger?”
She said that at the time she suffered from nightmares of women being abused and killed, and wrestled with the issue through the sleepless nights. This was a time when in newsrooms across the country, reporters and editors were debating whether withholding names did more harm than good for victims of sexual assault. Yet in the end, she decided to include all the correct information and names and it had an immediate effect. Besides winning the Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Writing, in 1992 every single legislation that Henson’s column recommended was passed in Kentucky’s legislature.
I was lucky enough to speak with Henson over the phone several days after the event and I asked about her ethical thinking process regarding the editorial series and her ultimate decision to name sources in the series. She said that ironically enough, when she was applying for the Nieman Foundation fellowship, one of the first questions she was asked was to recount a ethical dilemma she had faced, a question that gave her long pause when thinking about this particular issue.
Henson said that she and her colleagues grappled for a long time with the decision of whether or not to name names when related to the victims of domestic abuse. She indeed did fear what might happen to her sources, in addition to the trauma they were already inducing by asking them to relive painful experiences, in the way of retaliation. That’s why Henson said that in the end, after much serious deliberation, they decided to give every named source the option of killing the story if they felt too afraid or threatened with what might happen to them when it did.
“We were always striving to be sensitive to the sources and any potential danger for them. We did give them unusual control in the publishing process. It was our way to balance presenting powerful, persuasive accounts with real names and real photographs on editorial pages, which was not the norm at the time by any stretch, with being sensitive to women’s fears about sharing their stories.”
And yet out of the many women whose stories were published, not one came forward in protest and even more incredibly there was not a single instance of retaliation against any of the victims named that Henson was aware of.
Henson also said that she tried to be as considerate with her sources as possible while also retaining journalistic integrity, which meant following up on every account she was given (discipline of verification). She fact-checked all claims made to the best of her ability, gathering as many medical and police records as she could find (because in some circumstances there weren’t even records of court proceedings and other official matters).
As Henson explained it, in the end it simply came down to this: this was a rampant issue across the state of Kentucky that everyone knew about but nobody was talking about, and it would take these highly personal and graphic accounts to make a truly lasting impact. And it did: domestic violence laws changed to expand protective orders and protections for battered women, and court practices in these cases improved, along with training for prosecutors and judges.
Therefore her rationale was that risk of harm to her sources by including their names would be overwhelmingly outweighed by the potential for real legislative and systematic change that could only happen if the stories were personal, gripping and raw. Simply saying “a woman who chose to remain off the record” wouldn’t carry the same meaning as an actual name. It was therefore Henson’s hope that the end would justify the means and save lives (teleological or ends-based approach). Her sources were at risk of course, but she also had to think about the entire female population of Lexington and their well-being. If she put one or two women at risk to save thousands of lives in the present and future, it would be the right choice. But instead of just abjectly deciding to print the names with no more discussion, she and her colleagues came up with a more moderate plan that would provide the sources with some autonomy over their accounts (Golden Mean concept, favor the most stakeholders).
In her ethical decision-making process, two main journalistic principles were in conflict with each other: that of minimizing harm and that of protecting the truth to the highest extent. And even with her extra measures to give her sources an out if they felt they needed it, there was still a possibility of harm. Her options were either to publish as unnamed sources and risk lower impact/yield, or print the names and risk harm to the sources. In the end she chose the latter and that is the choice I too would have to agree with personally.
Sometimes the very sources we rely on as journalists can be put at risk just by talking to us. But it’s very important that we tell their stories in the press to as detailed an extent as we possibly can, because it is only through the power of the pen to invoke compassion and empathy that true change can be achieved in many of these scenarios. It is our duty as journalists to report all the facts and not hold back, to seek the truth and hope that we can influence some change or at the very least start a dialogue in the public sphere. In fact, that was exactly what happened in Henson’s case: there was a dramatic increase in the public conversation about domestic violence, to the point where even politicians seeking office talked about it and were asked about it when they were running for office. All in all, Henson believed she made the right decision, and had I been in her shoes I would have felt exactly the same way.