The Internet ID'ed A 7-Year-Old Sex Assault Victim

by Suzanne Samin

When an Amber Alert went out on Saturday, Nov. 8 describing a seven-year-old girl's abduction in Ardmore, Oklahoma, local and national news outlets scrambled to get her name, picture, and details out in case anyone could help find her. The girl, who we'll call Jane Doe, was ultimately found hours later, but when police discovered she had been raped, it left several news stations and websites in a panic. Most, if not all news outlets, have ethical policies against naming victims of sexual assault, particularly children, in order to minimize the harm that may come to them from being exposed as a victim. But just hours prior, they had exposed all of Doe's information for the world to see.

The outlets — included but not limited to OKNews, ABC, and FOX — had mixed reactions. Some tried their best to remove her information, while others still have Doe's real name up on their sites — and we all know how permanent the Internet can be. (The right to be forgotten, anyone?) Doe has now been reunited with her family and is in the care of a medical facility. The assailant has been arrested, but it's possible the Internet has unwittingly extended Doe's suffering indefinitely.

Now, the damage has already been done, and all journalists can do now is examine the case and analyze how to better proceed in the future. That said — was this incident preventable? Or was this just a tragic flaw in the system that couldn't be avoided?

Christopher Furlong/Getty Images News/Getty Images

The answer is clear-cut in some areas and foggier in others. On the one hand, Doe's information, specifically her picture, played a necessary role in her rescue. If people hadn't known what she looked like, they would've had a much harder time finding her.

However, whether exposing her full name was necessary is debatable. Granted, outlets have been naming abduction victims forever, and when those victims are found, there can be evidence they've been assaulted during their captivity. Additionally, it's helpful to know a child's first name, so you can make sure a) you have the right child and b) they trust you as someone who knows something about them.

But with the Internet the way it is now — providing hundreds of ways for stories to be shared and archived thousands of times, making the task of "disappearing" very difficult — outlets should have had second thoughts about releasing her last name online within the first 24 hours. Doe is now faced with not only the psychological repercussions of sexual assault, but also may have to relive her experience every time she or anyone else looks her up on the Internet. A memory that was more or less guaranteed to haunt Doe her entire life is now preserved on display for the world to see, and she deserved so much more than that.

Images: Flickr/ajordanphoto, Getty