Desperately Seeking the News 

What's in a name

What's in a name

Maury County educator Noel Evans, who killed himself two weeks ago, may or may not have been guilty of sexual harassment and financial mismanagement, as school officials charge. But we do know that Evans was a murderer. He shot his wife in the head before turning the gun on himself.

Dozens of sympathetic press stories suggested that the school board’s charges against Evans have no foundation. Few reported any outrage over the fate of Evans’ wife. But no journalist went further in defense of Evans than the Banner’s John Pitcher, who wrote last Monday that Evans first killed himself “and then his wife, Terry.”

Evans’ supporters are quieter now, however, after both Nashville dailies printed detailed accusations from Evans’ four alleged victims. The Banner and The Tennessean also printed the victims’ names, even though the women had been promised confidentiality by school officials.

“We don’t normally print the names of victims of sexual abuse,” said Victor Hollingsworth, criminal-justice editor at the Banner. “But I don’t think this type of sexual harassment is included in that policy.”

Hollingsworth said he overruled reporter Patricia Lynch Kimbro, who had argued against printing the names. She was “very uncomfortable” naming the victims, Hollingsworth said, “but people have a right to know who made these accusations and how serious they were.”

Tennessean managing editor Dave Green said his editors briefly discussed whether to print the names, and “it wasn’t much of a controversy.”

“We do not typically name people who complain of serious sexual abuse,” Green said, “but that policy doesn’t apply to accusations of harassment.” Green said he wasn’t concerned that the victims had been promised confidentiality by school officials. “The school board had no legal right to make that commitment,” he said. “If the victims have a complaint about that, they should take it up with the school system.”

WSMV-Channel 4, on the other hand, decided not to broadcast the victims’ names, and when WKRN-Channel 2 anchor Bob Mueller asked reporter Maryann Byrd to name the victims during an on-air interview, Byrd refused to answer.

“I told [Mueller] I didn’t want to name them at that time,” Byrd said. “There had been enough damage done in that community,” she said. “Why fuel the fire?” Byrd pointed out that the victims’ names are now public record “if anyone wants to see them,” but she said she saw no reason to broadcast the names “unless the victims themselves wanted to come forward.”

Channel 4’s Al Tompkins said he told his staff “pretty strongly” that his station should keep the victims’ names confidential. “Holding these people out to more public ridicule seemed like adding more harm and not much illumination,” he said. “We asked ourselves, ‘Do people need to know the names to understand the story?’ In this case, the answer is no.”

The two daily papers, along with WTVF-Channel 5, made the right call. News judgments shouldn’t be based on worries about “adding fuel to the fire,” shielding victims from the public, or asking, “Do people need to know this?” Except in rare and compelling circumstances, journalists should print what they know and let the readers determine the consequences. That includes rape and sexual abuse victims, who ought to be treated no differently from other victims of violent crime.

Noel Evans will never be tried for his alleged sexual misconduct. The only way people can try to make sense of what happened is to judge for themselves the statements, character, and reputation of Evans and each one of his accusers. That’s why you print the names. It’s also one of the reasons you print newspapers.

Winners and losers

Winner: Associated Press reporter Karin Miller, who, with the help of an anonymous source, broke the news late last Thursday that Columbia/HCA’s Rick Scott had been canned by his board of directors. The story was carried nationwide the next day under Miller’s byline.

Loser: The Tennessean editor who decided to run the story of Scott’s leaving under the byline of Tennessean reporter Julie Bell instead of giving credit to Miller.

Winner: Julie Bell, who had predicted a week earlier that Scott’s future at Columbia was in doubt.

Loser: Local hospital consultant Josh Nemzoff, often quoted in the press as an industry expert, who repeatedly predicted Scott would keep his job.

More losers: The Banner, which downplayed the Scott story until after Columbia’s official announcement; Columbia spokeswoman Eve Hutcherson, who told the press Friday morning that the AP report of Scott’s firing was incorrect, while Scott himself was cleaning out his office; and Lindy Richardson, Columbia’s former head of marketing and public affairs, who will now have lots of spare time to write a media-relations textbook on how to alienate reporters, paint your boss as being secretive and robotic, and convince the public that your company has plenty to hide from the government.

Odds and ends

WLAC-AM talk show host Charlie Mattos didn’t make it to the scene of Monday’s explosion on I-24 but urged motorists stuck in traffic to telephone the station from their cars and describe what had happened. Within minutes, however, Mattos changed his mind, telling motorists not to call. At the time, police believed that a cellular call might have caused the explosion. Mattos apologized.

♦ Apologies to former radio host John Ziegler and Young Democrat Ginger Hausser, whose names have been misspelled in this column.

To comment or complain about the media, leave a message for Henry at the Scene (615-244-7989, ext. 445), call him at his office, 615-252-2363, or send an e-mail to hwalker@bccb.com

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