Withholding names and information

This section addresses these ethical issues:

In addition to the issue of naming names in crimes or questions of possible illegal activity, many other questions come up about withholding names and information.

Most ethical codes will include a reference to showing consideration for people either not used to dealing with the media or those dealing with grief or shock. Children also deserve special mention because they cannot give informed consent. And there are often laws dealing with photos and speaking to children, especially in relation to crimes.

Rape/Sexual Assault Victims

Much has been written about whether victims in some cases should be named, given the high-profile nature of the crime. The general belief is that, given the stigma sexual assault carries in most societies, media should refrain from identifying victims of most sexual crimes, unless the victim is willing to speak publicly. Many believe it is more important to report their relationship with the accused and what happened, rather than the names — as long as these details don’t specifically identify the person. The cases should then be covered to the end.

Sometimes assault victims agree to be identified. In other cases, a person may become well known as a missing person (e.g., the Elizabeth Smart case in the United States), and when it ultimately turns out that she was a victim of sexual assault, it is too late to remove the name from the story. (If the case is not such a high-profile matter, it is still possible to stop using the name.)

Some believe that if a rape accuser’s allegation is shown to be false and malicious, she is no longer entitled to privacy. You might not want to identify an accuser simply because a defendant is acquitted, though. The lack of witnesses and physical evidence in many sexual assault cases makes it a difficult crime to prove to the high standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt. If media identify accusers routinely in cases of acquittals, you might increase the reluctance of victims to press charges.

Breaking news

News organizations that cover breaking news sometimes have the names of victims of crimes, accidents or disasters before authorities have notified their families. You might have names from neighbors, witnesses or even officials.

One position in such cases would be to withhold the names until authorities have released them. Another position would be to publish names as soon as you have them verified. A middle position might be to wait until authorities have released names in most cases, but make exceptions if a person is prominent, if authorities appear to be delaying release of names for no good reason, or if you learn from family that the closest relatives have been notified.

Factors to consider in deciding your position in these cases are newsworthiness, the impact of reporting a death incorrectly if your sources are wrong and whether you would want to learn of a loved one’s death through the media.


There have been a number of high-profile suicides by teens with allegations they were bullied or cyberbullied. In these cases, the parents have come forward with their names and stories, and the names of the potential bullies have not been reported. Many news organizations wrestle with the question of naming these accused bullies before they are charged with any crime. If formal charges are filed against a minor, the news organization can refer to its own policy on identifying minors charged with crimes.

Some news organizations also decide to withhold details of suicides or not to report on suicides unless they happened in public or involved public figures or important public issues. See the separate module on suicides.

Kidnap victims/journalists

Few support a double standard in identifying kidnap victims, whether they are journalists or not. The essential need is to balance the safety of the individual with the public’s need to know — especially in the case of a prominent person. Questions to ask include what do the kidnappers know? Do they know whom they’ve kidnapped?

As to reporting on the kidnap itself, sometimes it’s easier to free a hostage if there is no publicity. In other cases, publicity helps — especially if, for instance, it’s to make clear that a person is a journalist, businessperson, or priest and not a spy.

Mass killers

There is a growing sentiment that the names of mass killers should not be mentioned, or more realistically, that their names and photos should not be the focus of the news. This is because they often seek attention in their acts and feeding that could fuel copycats.

Most news organizations still identify mass killers, though, saying their identities and information about them are important parts of the story. These organizations say there is great curiosity about these people and a public policy value to identifying what turns them into murderers. It can be equally important to understand what made the person commit the crime, as to tell the stories of the victims. Still, some of these organizations try to avoid constantly showing photos of people accused of mass killings.

People facing intolerance in their societies

Madeleine Bair of WITNESS notes that in some nations and situations, identifying gay people and activists against government policies may cause them danger.

Information involving public safety, security and military operations

Many journalists agree to withhold information that could give away imminent police and military operations. In Paris in January 2015, television stations were accused of revealing on the air the locations of people hiding from terrorists who had seized their workplaces. Many journalists agree that such information should not be broadcast because attackers are likely to be able to watch the coverage. Journalists accompanying military units also often agree to maintain “operational security.”

At the same time, the question arises as to what truly should be secret. Edward Snowden claimed that material about NSA activities he revealed was an important subject for public debate. Computer hackers who attacked Sony Pictures in December 2014 revealed newsworthy information about the company. Should such material be received and quoted by news media? The short answer is, it depends. Have laws been clearly violated, or is there another compelling reason for public disclosure? Is anyone’s life at risk? Is there any harm in waiting to disclose the information?

Public/private people

At what point do private people, such as family members of politicians, become part of the narrative? Many journalists believe this depends in part on how public the family members have become or whether family matters reflect any hypocrisy or misconduct by an official.

Similar questions arise in the situation of private people who are suddenly thrust into the public eye because of news events that involve them. As you decide how much attention their personal lives merit, consider questions such as how willingly they embrace or exploit the attention, how relevant their private lives are to the public issue that thrust them into the spotlight, and how open they are being about the matter in social media.

Whose decision to name names?

The decision to name people involved in certain situations is sometimes controlled by law, but more often by societal conventions. In some cases, journalists may even take a calculated risk in terms of the law if they believe that identifying someone is clearly to the public’s benefit.

It is interesting to consider the impact of the EU right to privacy convention and how that is affecting the freedom of expression in journalism. The other idea gaining ground in Europe especially is the “right to be forgotten.” How will that mesh with a permanent, online, easily accessible journalism?

The main author of this section is Sylvia Stead of the Toronto Globe and Mail, with some material added by Steve Buttry of Louisiana State University.

See the sections on “Children: coverage, images and interviews,” “Mental health and suicide,” “Privacy and reporting on personal lives” and “Hostage situations.”

Additional resources
European court of human rights privacy criteria hampers media – legal experts
The Right to Be Forgotten
The Conflict Between a “Right to Be Forgotten” & Speech/Press Freedoms
Why did journalists act as a pack in withholding names of Herman Cain’s accusers?
Ethics of Media Withholding Information About Kidnapped Journalists
News orgs should deny mass killers the attention they crave
Naming Names
Press Council of Ireland Code of Practice
New York Times: Guidelines on Our Integrity
Name the accuser and the accused
When to Name Names
Defining the Line Between the Public’s Right to Know and the Individual’s Right to Privacy
The Globe and Mail Editorial Code of Conduct