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KING

K. Booher
JRN 421
9 Dec 2008

How and When to Use Children’s Names: A Case Study

Oxnard, Calif., Feb. 12, 2008, – Fifteen-year-old Lawrence King was fatally shot in the

head by his eighth-grade classmate, Brandon McInerney, at E.O. Green Junior High School.

According to the Los Angeles Times, McInerney’s motive was that King was openly gay.

Although the media treated the crime with compassion, journalists were also quick to identify

both the victim and the alleged perpetrator by name within 48 hours of the event.

An examination of the Los Angeles Times’ and Ventura County Star’s coverage of the

unfolding events allows for exploration of the ethical considerations of using the names of

minors so quickly after the event took place.

Background

According to Los Angeles Times’ reports beginning the day after the shooting, 14-year-old

McInerney walked into his first period English class on Feb. 12 and in front of the entire class

shot King in the head before running from the building. McInerney was apprehended a few

minutes later by Oxnard and Port Hueneme, Calif., police officers. King was taken to St. John

Regional Medical Center where he seemed to improve during the evening. Police spokesman

David Keith even commented that “he’s gone from very critical to a little bit better. He’s actually

communicating with personnel at the hospital.”


In the first report by the Times the day after the shooting, neither the victim nor the

alleged shooter was named, although the story names every other minor student interviewed. The

paper also reported the motive for the shooting may have been the end result of a personal

dispute between King and McInerney. According to students quoted in the story, King described

himself as gay and sometimes wore makeup, high heels, nail polish and feminine jewelry to

school. King was frequently taunted by other boys and may have been involved in a lunchtime

argument with his alleged attacker the day before the shooting. McInerney allegedly told King he

should “watch his back.”

On Feb. 15, three days after the shooting, the Times reported that Ventura County

prosecutors had charged McInerney with King’s death and claimed the shooting was a

premeditated hate crime. McInerney was charged as an adult but was being held in juvenile

detention in lieu of $770,000 bail. If convicted, McInerney could face 50 years to life in prison

with the hate crime designation adding an additional one to three years to the sentence. The

article also reported that King was declared brain dead and taken off life support the previous

evening. This article was the first time the Times used full identification for either the victim or

the shooter.

According to a California law passed in 2001, a juvenile must only be 14 years old to be

able to be tried as an adult. When McInerney committed the murder he was just 19 days past his

14th birthday. McInerney’s public defender, Willie Quest, argued McInerney should be tried as a

juvenile because the 51 years to life McInerney faces if convicted was “essentially a death

sentence” given the state of California’s prison system and its substandard prison health care. On

July 26, the Times reported that Superior Court Judge Doug Daily upheld the decision to try

McInerney as an adult based on the severity of the crime.


On Aug. 7, McInerney pleaded not guilty to premeditated murder and a hate crime and

after a number of delays, the trial was set for Oct. 14. On that date however, Ventura County

Superior Court Judge Kevin McGee ruled that McInerney could fire Quest as his lawyer because

McInerney felt he had been provided ineffective counsel. McInerney then hired United Defense

Group together with attorney Robyn Bramson as his attorneys. On the same date, the judge

denied a motion to place a gag order on McInerney’s former lawyers.

The case is currently pending. No new trial date has been set.

Ethical Issues

One of the largest ethical issues arising from the King murder case was the use of full

identification for both the underage victim and alleged shooter so soon after the incident took

place. Although there is not one specific ethics code all journalists follow, most journalists agree

they should be cautious and prudent when deciding whether to fully identify minors involved in

crimes.

The Society of Professional Journalists, an independent journalism organization founded

in 1909 and “dedicated to encouraging the free practice of journalism and stimulating high

standards of ethical behavior,” created a code of ethics which included a journalist’s

responsibility to “minimize harm.” Under that heading, SPJ maintains that “ethical journalists

treat sources, subjects and colleagues as human beings deserving of respect.” To do that, SPJ

explains journalists should be “cautious” about identifying juvenile suspects involved in crimes

and be “judicious” in naming criminal suspects until they are formally charged with a crime. SPJ

also says journalists ought to “use special sensitivity when dealing with children and

inexperienced sources or subjects.”


The Los Angeles Times also has its own set of ethics guidelines which states that “The

Times does not identify the alleged victims of sex crimes or persons under 18 who are charged

with crimes. Exceptions occasionally arise. The final decisions to name any individual rest with

the editor, managing editor or any other editor designated by them.” The Times’ ethics code says

nothing about naming victims of crimes who happen to be younger than 18 unless they were

alleged victims of sex crimes, then they are not named unless by exception as noted above.

In the first story after the shooting, Times writers Catherine Saillant and Steve Chawkins

declined to use either King’s or McInerney’s names although the story still ran 760 words. In the

story, however, they did name every other minor they spoke with, although each minors’

comment was followed by a parent’s comment or otherwise indicated that the child’s guardian

knew the child was being interviewed. It seems the reporters did their best to minimize the

amount of harm done and follow their own ethical guidelines because they took care to limit the

amount of “how do you feel about what happened?” questions and only spoke with children who

had parents present.

Two days after the shooting Catherine Saillant and Greg Griggs first reported King’s

name after he passed away in the hospital. According to Saillant, editors (at the downtown Times

offices) decided to report King’s name because “the kid was already dead.” There was still no

mention of McInerney’s name but there were quotes from two students this time without listing

any parents. According to Saillant, she was never involved in any editorial discussions. “I was

just told to go ahead and use full identification because I was in the field covering the story.”

While the Los Angeles Times seems to run a very top-down organization, the 65-person

staff at the Ventura County Star does things differently. According to Assistant Managing Editor
Mike Blackwell, in the hours and days following the shooting there were numerous discussions

among everyone in the newsroom about how, when and if to fully identify both King and

McInerney.

“We were on the scene literally within minutes,” Blackwell said. “So we were able to

collect and verify a lot of first-hand information.”

And yet, the Star named the victim and the shooter in its very first story. According to

Blackwell, “Everything we learned first-hand, on the scene, we verified to be correct because we

didn’t want to print [incorrect] information.”

The shooting happened around 8 a.m. and the first version of the Star story was released

only an hour and a half later. In order to report as much information as soon as possible, the story

read that “Other students in the class identified the victim as Lawrence King and the shooter as

Brandon McInerney. Police would not confirm the names but said both were 15.”

King was the first of the two students officially named when he passed away the day after

the shooting. McInerney was not named until Feb. 15 when he was formally charged with the

shooting.

Blackwell said the paper’s policy is not to name juveniles in most cases, but this was the

first time any case like this had ever happened in Ventura County.

“We [officially] named McInerney after law enforcement charged him as an adult,”

Blackwell said. “We had discussions about what would happen if law enforcement decided to try

him as a juvenile, but [in the end], that didn’t happen.”


Regardless of how or when the Ventura County Star named King and McInerney, there

was discussion among everyone at the paper. Blackwell said ethics and correct facts were always

at the forefront of those discussions.

“We talked about what to do [with their names] because they were both juveniles,

because of the seriousness of the crime, and because of what the [defense attorney] and police

were doing,” Blackwell said.

Analysis

When it comes to ethics, there is no one standard everyone must follow or even one that

is universally accepted. There are as many ways of “doing ethics” as there are journalists in

America. When it comes to children however, most journalists feel there is some bubble of

protection that ought to be afforded to them. According to SPJ, all people should be treated with

respect with preference given to children and inexperienced subjects. Journalists should also by

careful when dealing with juveniles charged with any crimes.

At first, the Los Angeles Times’ stories seemed to do a better job of protecting the

children until all the facts were known. The reporters refrained from releasing the names of the

victim and the shooter until they were confirmed by the police and they made sure every child

interviewed had a parent or guardian with them.

The Ventura County Star on the other hand seemed to barge in and get as much (maybe

too much) information as they possibly could. The title of the first story, “Victim, Suspect

Named in Oxnard School Shooting,” seemed to implicate McInerney as a suspect before the

police would confirm it. Although Blackwell said his staff got numerous first-hand confirmations

of identities of the victim and shooter were from students in the room, it still seemed a bit
irresponsible to list their names. The story, with a byline of “staff reports,” was first posted to the

Star Web site at 9:41 a.m., maybe enough time for the parents of King and McInerney to sort out

what was going on, maybe not.

And yet, anyone who wants to vilify the Star should consider the differences between the

two papers. Part of this difference is the proximity of each of the papers to the actual event. The

Times is an hour away in Los Angeles while the Star is only about 17 minutes. This might have

allowed the Star more consistent access in the days and weeks following the shooting. Also, the

Star is more of a “hometown” paper so coverage might be expected to be more in-depth because

the people reading it are going to know and care about the students involved. Eventually, King’s

death was turned into another Matthew Shepard-type hate crime that caught national attention

but in the beginning, the Los Angeles readers may not have cared as much as the Ventura County

readers.

Conclusion

There is no one “right way” to handle ethical situations involving children. Most

journalists and news outlets agree children should be protected as much as possible, but

depending on the circumstances, that may or may not be feasible. In the King murder, both the

Los Angeles Times and the Ventura County Star felt it necessary to report the names of the victim

and the shooter. Each had a different way of deciding how to do it however. The Times editors’

made the decision then told the writer how to report, where as the Star staff all sat down together

and discussed how the names should be handled. In the end, both papers sought to do the least

damage to the children while still maintain high journalistic standards.


Works Cited
1. Blackwell, Mike. Assistant Managing Editor, Ventura County Star. Phone Conversation. 8
Dec. 2008. (305) 437-0240

2. Hernandez, Raul. “14-year-old faces murder charges.” Ventura County Star. 15 Feb. 2008. 6
Dec. 2008. < http://www.venturacountystar.com/news/2008/feb/15/14-year-old-faces-
murder-charge/>.

3. Hernandez, Raul. “Judge Rules Teen Accused of Murder may Switch Lawyers.” Ventura
County Star. 15 Oct. 2008. 6 Dec. 2008. < http://www.venturacountystar.com/news/
2008/oct/15/judge-rules-teen-accused-of-murder-may-switch/>.

4. “Los Angeles Times Code of Ethics” 6 Dec. 2008. < http://latimes.image2.trb.com/lanews/


media/acrobat/2005-07/18479691.pdf>.

5. Saillant, Catherine. Staff Reporter, Los Angeles Times. Phone conversation. 8 Dec. 2008.
(213) 237-5000.

6. Salliant, Catherine and Steve Chawkins. “Student Shot in Oxnard.” Los Angeles Times. 13
Feb. 2008. 6 Dec. 2008 <http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-oxnard13feb13,
0,5992653,full.story.>

7. Saillant, Catherine and Greg Griggs. “Student Wounded in Oxnard Dies.” Los Angeles Times.
14 Feb. 2008. 6 Dec. 2008. <http://articles.latimes.com/2008/feb/14/local/me-oxnard14>.

8. Saillant, Catherine and Amanda Covarrubias. “Oxnard School Shooting Called a Hate Crime.”
Los Angeles Times. 15 Feb. 2008. 6 Dec. 2008. <http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-
me-oxnard15feb15,0,7663055.story>.

9. Saillant, Catherine and Amanda Covarrubias. “Oxnard Teen Shot on Campus Removed from
Life Support.” Los Angeles Times. 16 Feb. 2008. 6 Dec. 2008. < http://articles.latimes.
com/2008/feb/16/local/me-oxnard16>.
10. Society of Professional Journalists. “Code of Ethics.” 1996. 6 Dec. 2008. < http://www.spj.
org/ethicscode.asp>.

11. Staff Reports. “Victim, Suspect Named in Oxnard School Shooting.” Ventura County Star.
12 Feb. 2008. 6 Dec. 2008. < http://www.venturacountystar.com/news/2008/feb/12/no-
headline---nxxwcshooting13/>.