Should the Media Name the Accuser When the Crime Being Charged Is Rape?

New York Times:

The Nation; Should the Media Name the Accuser When the Crime Being Charged Is Rape?


Published: April 21, 1991

UNLIKE the targets of any other adult crime, rape victims have almost always had their identities shielded by American newspapers.

By withholding the names of the plaintiffs, even as they routinely reveal the names of the alleged assailants, news organizations have chosen to override two principles they apply almost universally in the rest of their coverage. The first is fairness, which would normally preclude anonymous accusations. The second is the obligation the media generally feel to publish truthful and relevant information as soon as possible.

But now there are signs of a shift. Some women contend that special treatment may only perpetuate the stigma of rape. While hardly anyone believes that society has reached the day when rape can be treated like any other serious assault, more and more newspapers are beginning to question their policies. The case in which William Kennedy Smith has been accused by Patricia Bowman of rape has intensified the debate.

"I just do not see a case for treating victims of rape differently from other victims," said Irene Nolan, the managing editor of The Courier-Journal of Louisville, Ky. "A lot of victims of violent crime do not want a public ordeal either. Why should rape victims get a break others don't get?"

But, she added, her newspaper would adopt a case-by-case approach in the immediate future because "a huge flap in the community would be counterproductive."

The debate goes beyond the use of the name itself. Once the accuser unwillingly becomes a public figure, are the facts of her private life fair game? How does a newspaper or a television station reconcile its instinct to publish all it knows with the danger of destroying a victim's privacy and possibly her reputation?

In the beginning, the withholding of the names of rape victims stemmed from Victorian stigma. But over the last two decades the policy has been sustained out of respect for women's privacy and in the hope that it will encourage them to come forward and talk about an ugly and under-reported crime.

In effect, editors have placed the social good above the strictest application of their journalistic standards. They have substituted the "publish what you know" principle with the vaguer notion of "publish what seems right."

Since Susan Brownmiller's 1975 book "Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape" helped put the question on the national agenda, rape has steadily lost some of its isolating stigma.

"We see many more women than in the past ready to come forward and bring charges for rape," said a senior detective for the New York City sex-crimes squad. "They are generally educated rather than poorer women and they generally want to be anonymous. There's always a reluctance to be spotlighted in a situation like this." According to the National Organization for Women, many, if not most, rape cases are still not reported.

Leaders of women's organizations disagree over the propriety of withholding victims' names. "The National Organization for Women is absolutely opposed to revealing the name of a rape victim without her consent," said Melodie Bahan, president of the New York chapter of NOW.

But Isabelle Katz Pinzler, director of the Women's Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, said: "There are feminist arguments why it might not be a bad idea to name the victims. It might be a step toward destigmatizing and, by making rape less of a faceless crime, it brings home the horror."

The dilemma has been vividly illustrated since March 30. A then-unnamed woman's accusation that Mr. Smith raped her at the Kennedy estate in Palm Beach, Fla., received extensive national media attention.

Finally, last week, several news organizations, including The New York Times, named the woman. The Times cited its longstanding practice of judging such cases individually and day by day; it argued that Ms. Bowman was no longer a private figure after she had been identified on NBC, and that keeping the name secret would have been an empty gesture.

"People who have gone to the police and publicly invoked the criminal process and accused somebody of a serious crime such as rape must be identified," said Alan M. Dershowitz, a professor at Harvard Law School. "In this country there is no such thing and should not be such a thing as anonymous accusation. If your name is in court it is a logical extension that it should be printed in the media. How can you publish the name of the presumptively innocent accused but not the name of the accuser?"

Mr. Dershowitz continued: "Feminists cannot have it both ways. They have persuaded us that rape victims should not be singled out for special treatment. Yet that is what many of them want from news organizations."

Floyd Abrams, a First Amendment laywer, said that, as a purely legal matter, he agreed with Mr. Dershowitz. But he added: "I disagree that an automatic price tag for reporting a sex crime must be having your name printed. The press in general should allow the alleged victim to make that decision." He said he held this view because of the unique moral opprobrium and humiliation that has traditionally been heaped on sex-crime victims.

Some editors are moving away from the principle of avoiding identification toward the flexible position outlined by Mr. Abrams. But recognizing that this is still a world full of irrational prejudice, they are reluctant to make identification an immovable tenet.

The Des Moines Register won a Pulitzer Prize this year for a series in which a reporter, Jane Schorer, chronicled the ordeal of a rape victim named Nancy Ziegenmeyer, who agreed to be identified. Geneva Overholser, the editor of The Register, said, "I question whether something that grew out of genuine feminist concerns in the 70's is in the long haul serving women and society well."

Since the special treatment given rape cases tends to contradict the basic instincts and principles of journalism, it is probably inevitable that victims of sexual assault will someday be treated like other victims. Joan Konner, dean of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, believes that the rule against using names may be considered a kind of state of emergency, an exceptional measure until society further evolves.

Although such instances are rare, the Tawana Brawley case in New York, in which a young black woman fabricated a story of sexual assault by a gang of racist men, is a reminder that there is such a thing as a false rape accusation and that it can do great harm.

But so can an insensitive article. If ever there were an area where strict balance and repertorial restraint seemed essential, it is in the coverage of a nationally publicized rape case. Identification is one issue; cheap innuendo quite another.

"We mimic the law in our inability to decide between guilt and innocence and when there is an accused we feel compelled to publish the name of the accuser," said Joe Goodman, the editor of The Winston-Salem Journal, one of very few papers that, over the last 20 years, has stuck with a policy of naming rape victims. "We never changed and the trend is coming back our way."

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