By Shereen Siewert

Early Monday, Wausau Pilot and Review learned the identity of a teenage boy in police custody who was suspected of sexually assaulting a 13-year-old girl during a house party the week before.

Initially, the paper withheld his name, as we do for nearly all juvenile arrests, even those waived into adult court.

By the end of the day, his name became public in government records and, within minutes, in news coverage, at nearly every local media outlet.

“It’s a simple rule of thumb,” veteran San Francisco Chronicle reporter Henry K. Lee explained in a 2015 editorial. “Is he charged as an adult? Yes? Boom, we run the name.”

In a survey of more than 100 publications, we found that the Chronicle’s rule is shared by many newsrooms nationwide.

Justifying that rule, however, is not so simple. At least, not to us.

The process of trying minors as adults is controversial and varies widely from state to state, and the decision to publish those names is not an easy one to make. In general, the “adult” designation allows for longer sentences than are available in the juvenile system.

Fundamental steps to protect children, such as hiding their identities, are often tossed aside by the legal system once the “adult” label is affixed. Is there a difference between how the government handles such cases and how news organizations should cover them, especially before a conviction?

Across the United States, thousands of children have been sentenced as adults and are serving time in adult prisons. In Wisconsin alone, there are hundreds of children younger than 18 housed in adult prisons and jails. The vast majority are convicted of non-violent crimes.

The frequency of adult charges for minors, sometimes as young as 10, is morally outrageous to many, and sentencing juveniles to adult prisons is increasingly frowned upon. In general the policy of automatically trying minors in adult court is declining.

And legal experts are taking a new look at juvenile crime, thanks to mounting evidence that 15- and 16-year-olds have a high likelihood of rehabilitation in the juvenile system. Certainly, age and severity of crime are factors. Most people would consider a heinous, premeditated act by a 17-year-old as different, for example, than an impromptu burglary by a 14-year-old.

At Wausau Pilot and Review, we will continue to rely on a lengthy list of considerations before making a decision on whether to publish the name of a juvenile accused of a crime. That list includes the age of the child, the prominence of the crime, and the strength of the evidence.

Is it legal to publish the names of minors charged as adults? Yes. Is it ethical? The short answer is, that depends. Our mantra is always “just because you can, doesn’t always mean you should.”

In this case, after a careful review of court documents, we ultimately made the decision to publish the name of Vang Ty Xiong. We stand by that decision, and will continue to report on this case as it unfolds.

Care to weigh in? Letters to the editor are welcome. Email editor@wausaupilotreview-newspack.newspackstaging.com.

One reply on “Editorial: Is it fair to reveal the names of minors charged as adults?”

  1. Well reasoned explanation, thanks. On a parallel note, another paper published the name of a 17 year old who was a second girl to come forward with allegations against public school teacher Kurt Hornsby.

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