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Who dunnit?

Sep 14, 2012 - By Steven R. Peck

Modern communication technology permanently has complicated the identification of crime victims

Ongoing issues related to how, when and whether certain crime victims and suspects can be identified publicly now are complicated considerably, and permanently, by the technology of instant communication.

It may be time to re-evaluate laws on the books intended to safeguard the identities of a victim but which, unwittingly, now may serve to harm the reputations of others.

There was a homicide in Lander early this week. Authorities have released the genders and ages of both the adult victim and the adult suspect, but not their names. They have cited a Wyoming statute, apparently related to sexual assault crimes, that prohibits public employees from disclosing the names of suspects and/or victims until charges are filed, or, in the case of minors, perhaps not at all.

Our newspaper wants no part in accelerating or worsening the effects of sexual assault on its victims. We're fully on board with protecting minors involved in such crimes as they move through the justice system.

At issue increasingly often, however, is whether laws intended to shield the identities of victims really are serving that purpose any more in the age of cell phones, e-mail, Facebook, texting, tweeting and their related forms of instant messaging.

The twin menaces of the rumor mill and the grapevine always have brought complications to cases like these, but now that they have been industrialized and turbocharged through technology their impact is swift and often damaging as a particle of information is introduced, seized, magnified, warped and then repeated, almost infinitely, across the capillary network of snoops, gossips, troublemakers and those who listen to them.

Before you know it, there can be a dozen rumors about who did what, all circulating simultaneously through cyberspace -- and at least 11 of them are completely false.

In the case of how fast a speeder was going on Main Street, talk is cheap. But when names start being tossed and tweeted related to a sexual assault or a murder, the cost rises drastically.

All this can make the local public official's stoic silence on the names of those involved appear quaint and silly. Citing the statute forbidding the release of information, they can try to end discussion by saying "We are abiding by the law."

Obviously, we want our public officials to abide by the law. But when adherence to a statute intended to safeguard one person permits unfettered gossip damaging any number of other people to swirl across every desktop, laptop and hand-held device in the county, perhaps the law itself needs a second look.

In the case of the Lander homicide, our newspaper received the name of a man matching the age and time of death of the victim in Lander. We got it through the normal process of gathering and preparing obituaries for publication. That name appeared in Thursday's edition of The Ranger, both print and online.

If publication of that name helped slow the spread of rumors tied to other, unrelated names, then we're glad we used it.

There are arguments in some cases against the swift identification of crime suspects and victims. But in the new age of communication, it's important to recognize that timely information from an authoritative source, disseminated through a recognized and legitimate vehicle, can not only confirm what happened, but -- importantly -- what did not happen.

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