Tuesday, September 18, 2007

A Journalistic Duty: My thoughts on naming rape victims in media

Covering rape as a journalist is a sensitive, ethical issue. Many questions should be posed within the mind of a reporter, as there are a myriad of factors to take into consideration while making the decision of whether to print a rape victims name or not. The name is usually part of public record and thus not private, so a large amount of responsibility lies in hands of the reporters and editors. Those of us wanting to become reporters and journalists may be faced with this issue, thus it is an imperative subject to analyze.

Yet this dilemma is far from new. Violent crimes have been the meat and potatoes of daily American newspapers since the mid-1800s. It was then that the penny presses first produced their lurid accounts of violence and murder and it was then, in 1833, that the first crime beat was established by a newspaper, the New York Sun, according to James Shuman and Ed Galdrikian’s Historical Outline of American Journalism. To this day, the media still seems to be obsessed with exposing violent crimes, including rape.

It is known that the way some publications and television stations operate today; putting the name in the public press is equivalent to assaulting the victim again.

While the issue of stigmatization still exists, some journalists look toward the bigger picture of the effect naming could possibly have on society's overall view of rape victims. There is the suggestion that the shielding of accusers implies a need for "keeping them hidden, as though they are somehow damaged, which in turn opens the door for detractors to label their reluctance to step forward as an indication that the charge is false," argues Feminism.com. While keeping victims protected from the media is beneficial in some ways, the very act can cause harm, due to the fact that it possibly feeds into the cycle that there is something to be ashamed of.

Because of the intrinsically competitive nature of newspapers, when a “hot” story breaks, the papers must desperately try to outdo each other and their broadcast rivals in scoops and timing, where the moral of naming of victims falls by the wayside. This competition puts such pressure on editors and writers that we tend to take short cuts—without stopping to think about the subtle implications of what we write. In either lack or time or in order to have the “better” story they may unethically print the name.

Also, no reporter is an empty vessel. Everyone brings a set of opinions, morals, and prejudices to his or her work, and these often leak into a story.

As long as the press is still stereotyping sex crime victims as “virgins or vamps,” it will continue to do the public irreparable harm.

If I were to come across this predicament in my work or studies, I would say the choice lies in the hands of the victim. Would she feel as if she would be victimized again by the publication of her name? Would she fear the fact that society may judge her to be as guilty as the rapist? Would others not come forward due to fear of their names being publicized? Or would she feel that she should not be ashamed and give consent to use her name?

It her solely her choice if she wants to be named or not.

No one would know how they would answer to any of these questions until they have been victimized themselves. And I would like to make it clear—no choice a victim makes is better than another.

As journalists, we generally write a story and move on. Those we write about will be forever connected to that story. We have a duty to show great compassion and concern.

We, as journalists, need to read the research of psychologists, sociologists and criminologists who have purposefully studied sexual assault and its impact on victims. We need to listen to rape crisis counselors and law enforcement officers who deal with this issue in real time. And we certainly need to hear the voices of the women and men who are the victims of sexual assault.

With more knowledge and education, we will be better suited to make these life-changing decisions.

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