Since the murder of a middle school principal in the suburbs of DC last month, the Washington Post has grappled with the complexities of how much to disclose about a victim's personal life.
Brian Betts, an innovative educator at the forefront of the district's efforts to turn around its beleaguered public school system, was found shot to death in his home April 17th. Days after the murder, Montgomery County's Police Chief J. Thomas Manger said, "It's still possible this was a random killing, but right now we don't think so." But readers of the Washington Post were kept in the dark about one important aspect of the case that could hold clues as the investigation unfolds. This past Sunday, the Post's ombudsman, Andrew Alexander, took this editorial position to task:
If you've been following the murder of D.C. middle school principal Brian Betts through various local media, you know that he was gay. But if you've been tracking the case only in the news pages of The Post, you're reading that fact for the first time right now.
The post had withheld that information from its readers, despite the fact that Betts's sexuality played a role in how he is alleged to have been targeted by his attackers: three teenagers have been arrested in connection with the murder, at least one of whom Betts spoke with through a phone-sex chat service earlier on the day of his death.
"Historically," Alexander writes, "The Post has been reticent to reveal sexual orientation unless it's relevant." And with good reason. Invasive reporting often does more harm than good, and the public only has a right to know details of victims' personal lives when it could further public understanding and the cause of justice. In this case, the accused allegedly used the phone-sex line to target Betts in a robbery that went wrong. The national organization Gays and Lesbians Opposing Violence even issued an advisory warning members of the LGBT community to exercise special caution using social networks and chat lines, a warning readers of the Post would not have known about. DC has a history of similar crimes based on sexuality, and the Washington Blade reported in the 1980s and 90s that "more than 20 murders of gay men in the D.C. metropolitan area believed to be pick-up murders remained unsolved." What's more, "police confirmed that in each of the cases, investigators found no signs of a forced entry into the victims’ homes, where their bodies were found," the scenario in the Betts case. All of which points to a wider pattern of murder and assault against the LGBT community that the Post failed to fill its readers in on. As Alexander correctly points out, "The line between privacy and disclosure is not always clear." But when withholding information not only paints an incomplete picture of a crime but also prevents that crime from being connected to a more widespread phenomenon, that discretion can do a disservice to the larger community.