Here were the circumstances -- and our thinking -- in a case that raised the question of how to protect kids in an era of viral news.
Melodee Hoffner, wife of Minnesota State University, Mankato football coach Todd Hoffner was flanked by her attorney Gerald Maschka as she read a statement saying her husband is innocent of child porn charges filed against him.
The case against Todd Hoffner, the college football coach who is accused of engaging in child pornography, has produced some difficult choices for media organizations in this era of viral news.
The Star Tribune's policy, like that of many organizations, is not to name individuals until they are charged unless there are extenuating circumstances or if it's a high-profile, public case in which the facts are widely known.
Crime suspects sometimes are held for a certain period of time without charges, and the reputation of an innocent person can be irreparably marred if he or she is named but never charged. For that reason, when the Star Tribune faces the question of whether to name a suspect, the decision must be made by a top editor.
Hoffner, the head football coach at Minnesota State University, Mankato, initially was arrested before he was charged, so whether to name him was the first question of the evening. Upon examining the details, we knew that he had been publicly escorted off his practice field.
Given his position, the fact that he had been arrested was public and widely known, so much so that an initial Internet search produced half a dozen news stories, including the details of his arrest. We chose to name him in the first story about his arrest.
A far more difficult decision came when the charging documents were actually released to the public, citing the nature of the videos Hoffner had of his three children dancing naked on his cell phone. Our policy is not to name the victims of alleged sexual abuse or pornography if withholding their names would protect their identity. (Adult victims sometimes request to be named.)
We posted the first story related to the two felony charges against Hoffner on our website without including the fact that the children in the videos on his phone were his own. Then the debate began.
We read the charging documents and the description of the activity depicted in the three videos. The editor in charge of the story argued that the heart of this case would center on the fact that these were family videos, and it would be impossible to cover the case without citing that fact.
"I want to know what the wife has to say," the editor pointed out. Even the condition of Hoffner's release hinged on whether he would have supervised or unsupervised visits with his children. On the other hand, we wondered how the children would fare if this information was made public.
Once again, I did an Internet search to see what details were already public, and received a stark reminder that the viral nature of news in this era often takes these decisions out of our hands. Many news organizations in the Mankato area already had noted that the videos in question were of Hoffner's children, and a person could easily find several Internet links with that information.
We did not think readers could understand this story without knowing that the videos were of Hoffner's children, but most important, we did not believe the Star Tribune could protect Hoffner's children in this instance.
At the same time, we knew readers would be upset if we didn't treat the children with great care. Consequently, we instructed our editors that they could include this information in our story -- but low in the story, not in the headline or lead.
I share this with you because, as we anticipated, a number of readers called and wrote, worried about the impact of these stories on Hoffner's children. I want readers to understand that we share your concerns and do not make these decisions without a great deal of thought and discussion, knowing that not everyone will agree with our call.
In subsequent days, Hoffner's wife has publicly denounced the charges, suggesting that the shots of their children dancing naked were "innocent videos of typical kids being silly." Prosecutors believe they constitute a crime.
As our front-page story on Thursday suggested, the case poses some difficult questions about how to define pornography and has stirred debate among parents. Regardless of the outcome, the case also has posed some lasting questions for us about how to fairly treat suspects and victims in this modern era of instant, viral news and information.
Nancy Barnes is editor of the Star Tribune.
The Opinion section is produced by the Editorial Department to foster discussion about key issues. The Editorial Board represents the institutional voice of the Star Tribune and operates independently of the newsroom.