Ethical case study: Maria Henson and “To Have and To Harm”

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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.

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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.

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