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Matt Von Pinnon, Published January 21 2012

Von Pinnon: Alleged sex crime victims handled with special care

Last weekend, on this very page, we ran a letter critical of our reporting on the criminal case of Dr. Jon Norberg.

The letter writer specifically criticized The Forum’s decision to not initially name Norberg’s sexual assault victim as his wife.

The letter writer was not alone in her criticism. I took several calls – all from women – who were upset that we did not identify the victim as Norberg’s spouse until she later chose to make her name public.

“The fact that his wife accused him of rape changes everything,” one woman told me. “Had I known that from the start, I would have looked at this differently – more like a domestic dispute.”

The Forum, like most other media organizations, has a practice of not usually identifying alleged victims of sexual assault unless they want to be identified. Such crimes are deeply personal, and reporting victims’ names can deter other victims from seeking justice.

It’s also common for victims of sexual assault to be family members, which further complicates what few identifiers can be used.

When Norberg was first charged in August with drugging and raping his wife, the victim’s name and relationship to the accused was known to us through police and court records.

We chose to not identify the victim because of the alleged sexual nature of the crime, but we also wanted the public to know that the alleged victim was known to Norberg and was not a patient, so that’s what we reported.

The victim’s identity was never reported by the press until earlier this month, when Norberg pleaded guilty to the lesser charges of felony reckless endangerment and a misdemeanor count of sexual assault.

Following that court matter, Norberg told reporters he was trying to help his wife cope with chronic health problems by sedating her with the anesthetic propofol and that she accused him of the crimes because he chose to divorce her (even though court records show she filed for divorce following her allegations that he routinely drugged her before sex).

A misunderstanding between a local TV news reporter and the prosecutor handling the case outed the victim on the airwaves. The next day, with her identity known to the public, the victim chose to respond to Norberg’s allegations. That was the first time The Forum ever used her name or relationship to the accused.

Soon after, Mr. and Mrs. Norberg traded more accusations in the press.

On some level, this is a nasty domestic dispute. On another, it’s a serious criminal matter. After all, Mr. Norberg was investigated, charged and pleaded guilty to a crime. His medical license was also revoked.

I’ve heard from many people concerned that allegations of sex crimes leave the accused appearing guilty while the press unfairly protects the accusers.

We understand those concerns, which is why we take great pains to report in similar fashion when someone accused of such a serious crime is found “not guilty,” or when charges are dropped. We also report the names of those charged with making false reports to police – even when the alleged crime was of a sexual nature.

Being fair to the accused while not further stigmatizing victims of sex crimes is never easy.

So far, most of the media has chosen to err on the side of not disclosing the identities of the accusers in sex crimes.

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