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Matt Von Pinnon, Published March 15 2009

Von Pinnon: Once-crucial identity now needs protection

A week ago today, The Forum published a front-page story alerting the public to what Fergus Falls police said was the armed kidnapping of a

17-year-old girl Saturday evening from a mall parking lot there.

Not long after the Sunday paper went to press that morning, the girl contacted Fergus police to report she was OK, that she had broken free or had been freed by her captor.

Soon after, thanks to a tip from a suspicious citizen, police arrested the girl’s stepfather on suspicion of assault and kidnapping.

We reported all that we knew of the bizarre events online Saturday night and in Sunday’s paper.

There was an urgency to alert the public to the situation and show the kidnapped girl and her suspected kidnapper. We published front-page photos of both people.

We then published a Monday story that detailed more of what witnesses and police said happened in the mall parking lot and in the several hours between the reported abduction and the girl calling police.

The girl even did an

on-camera interview with WDAY-TV on Sunday in which she recounted the abduction.

But on Monday afternoon everything relating to this story changed for us at The Forum. That’s when we learned through good reporting that the girl’s stepfather – and now suspected kidnapper – was already facing 14 sexual abuse charges in a neighboring county related to the same stepdaughter he is accused of abducting at gunpoint.

Suddenly, the girl whose name, photo and story were splashed all over the media for days was the suspected victim of several sex crimes.

Most area media outlets, including The Forum, have a practice of not naming victims or suspected victims of sex crimes.

After a brief Monday discussion among editors, we chose to stop using this girl’s name and photo in subsequent stories related to this case.

As we suspected, this decision confused and even angered some readers.

We heard from a few readers who, upon learning of the alleged repeated sexual abuse well before and just after the kidnapping, were upset we earlier named her and used her picture.

Even after we stopped using the girl’s name and photo, some readers were upset that we still are indirectly identifying her by saying the stepfather is accused of crimes related to his stepdaughter.

We understood all those issues when we chose to stop using her name and photo upon learning of the alleged sexual assaults.

We knew we couldn’t unidentify someone we had already identified, but we still chose to try to reduce further harm to the victim by not naming or showing her going forward.

Von Pinnon is editor of The Forum.Reach him at (701) 241-5579