BOB GARFIELD: Even as the media and public fitfully reckoned with the Steubenville verdict, a nauseatingly similar narrative played out in the town of Torrington, Connecticut. There, three teenage players stand accused of sexual acts with two 13-year-old girls. As in Steubenville, a lot of bullying and ridicule of the victims has taken place on social media. Unlike the Steubenville case, the local paper, the Connecticut Register Citizen, chose to publish the bullying tweets of high school students with their Twitter handles and images unredacted. The editor of the paper, Matt de Rienzo, wrote about the decision to print the names of minors.
MATT DE RIENZO: We could have written the story by summarizing the stuff, saying a group of kids, describing who the kids were. But we felt that the reaction to that the next day would be, ah, that’s not my kid. You know, those are the bad kids.
What we wanted to show was that, to the contrary, this was male students, female students, honor roll students. This was a widespread pervasive thing. And we wanted to show the public and their parents what these two 13-year-old girls were seeing when they went on Twitter. And we, we felt it was also the only way that the schools would act.
BOB GARFIELD: But, you know, I have to point out that in your paper, you have had stories about bomb threats, about attempted arsons, about robbery in which juvenile suspects were not named because of the general canon of protection for minor children who presumably are not equipped to make mature adult decisions and be held responsible for them [LAUGHS] in perpetuity. Why does bullying online cross a barrier that alleged arson does not?
MATT DE RIENZO: Well, for one thing, the arsonist is not signing their name with a message to it on the town green or whatever, right? [LAUGHS] And if, if they were, that would be part of the story and they probably would be identified. And it’s also those kind of crimes are not this mob mentality that shows a systemic issue with the community.
What’s really at stake here is the fact that a huge percentage of the student body in Torrington believes that statutory rape is not real rape and that it’s okay to call a 13-year-old a whore for reporting it.
BOB GARFIELD: But you certainly could have written exactly the same story by using the same images of the tweets, obscuring the faces and the handles, and just doing a little summary reporting of the demographics and a rough categorization of the tweeters. You could have given the context without actually naming the kids behind it. How close were you to making that decision?
MATT DE RIENZO: No, we absolutely discussed it, but we believe that if we had gone that route, the tweets and the harassment and the bullying would have continued, because parents wouldn't have woken up to it and the kids would be able to continue to hide behind anonymity, which is even a kind of a silly conversation, since they’re publicly tweeting [LAUGHS], you know?
BOB GARFIELD: Well, that does raise a question. Do you think publicly tweeting, in effect, publishing for the world your views, is a de facto waiver of any protections that you would be afforded as a child?
MATT DE RIENZO: I do think that, within reason.
BOB GARFIELD: Do you think that in this day of online publishing that even the old standards of withholding the names of minors no longer apply because the identities are going to be revealed anyway?
MATT DE RIENZO: Not necessarily, and I think it misses the point of this. We know about the problem, the real problem, which is this attitude towards rape and consent because of Twitter. And that’s the new part, because Twitter is broadcasting, that’s how we know about it, but the problem is the problem.
BOB GARFIELD: What kind of backlash is the Register Citizen facing?
MATT DE RIENZO: We’re getting a ton of criticism from the kids because they’re seeing their friends take a lot of grief for engaging in this kind of behavior. From adults, we’re seeing a ton of support. [LAUGHS] And, and maybe we just haven’t heard from the specific parents of these kids that were named but, in general, the adult community in Torrington is horrified by this. Their eyes are opened by it and they support the girls in the situation. And their eyes are opened about the attitudes of the kids. They feel like it’s an issue that needs to be dealt with head-on, and they do not have a whole lot of sympathy for these kids being embarrassed by what they said on Twitter.
BOB GARFIELD: What you’ve done here is, at least in terms of process, a kind of journalistic advocacy. You’ve broken a rule in the name of a larger good. Are - are you comfortable, now that I’m calling you an advocacy journalist?
MATT DE RIENZO: I am totally 100% comfortable with that. How could you not advocate for protecting 13-year-old girls from being bullied and called a whore for reporting a sexual assault?
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BOB GARFIELD: Matt, thank you very much.
MATT DE RIENZO: Thank you!
BOB GARFIELD: Matt De Rienzo is editor of the Connecticut Register Citizen.