Naming Rape Victims

An awful lot of cruelty surrounds the crime of rape. The crime itself, of course, is unspeakably cruel. And the reaction is often cruel, as well. In what other instance are victims so painfully scrutinized? Where else do we see such loathsome insinuations about a victim's character? So many false assumptions? So much ignorance? Cruelty feeds on ignorance. And I have yet to see ignorance effectively addressed by secrecy.

On all the tough problems, from AIDS to teen suicide to drug addiction to priests who abuse children, society has made progress when the truth is told. When real people talk about real experiences. When names are named.

What fundamental elements of good journalism these are: Getting at issues that most people prefer not be dealt with. And naming names is an essential part of the commitment to accuracy, credibility, and fairness. This practice frequently brings pain to individuals; truth-telling does have its victims. My own view is that recovery from difficult times, like journalism, is abetted by openness and hampered by secrecy. But the larger point is this: Openness serves society as a whole. It serves enlightenment and understanding and progress. And it serves the criminal justice system.

When journalists depart from the commitment to telling the whole story, to naming names, to getting at painful truths, we tread on dangerous ground. With very few exceptions -- national security, individual cases in which loss of job or loss of life will clearly ensue -- the best journalistic principle is to tell the public what we know. Selecting certain categories of information and seeking to do social work by acting against this principle is dangerous territory. Clearly, we owe children special protection. Beyond that, who of us is wise enough to select -- out of all those who would prefer not to have their names in the paper -- the winning categories? A general obligation to share the information we have is our surest course.

Over the decades, however, a consensus emerged that we would make one such choice. We have responded to the eloquent pleas of rape victims and victims' counselors, recognized the cruelty of the stigma of rape, and agreed to keep out of the newspapers and most other mainstream media the names of those who charge others with rape. Most people feel that this is the humane thing to do. I wonder if it has not prolonged the stigma, and fed the underreporting.

Certainly, in the past dozen years, we have made progress in reporting on, and understanding, the crime of rape. I am certain that this is in large part due to the courage of women who were willing to come forward and tell their stories. I also wonder if the unfairness of naming the accused and not the accuser has given platform to those who make outsized claims about the number of false charges of rape. And I wonder if shielding the accuser does not inflame still further the cruel search for dirt about her.

But here is the new development: As a practical matter, whether shielding rape victims was the right thing to do or not, it no longer makes sense. Newspapers are not -- as they once were -- the gatekeepers of such information. The culture has changed. Details about the Kobe Bryant accuser are being bandied about by shock jocks and on the Net netherworld. Mainstream media stick to an outdated policy, which has turned into a conceit. This empty posturing produces stories such as the article (registration required) by the Orange County Register, raising questions about the mental stability of the accuser in the Kobe Bryant case -- and then intoning: "The Register is not identifying the woman because of the sensitive nature of the case." The people who know the woman already know she's the one involved in this case. Meanwhile, much of the nation hears or reads irresponsible charges against her.

The responsible course for responsible media today is this: Treat the woman who charges rape as we would any other adult victim of crime. Name her, and deal with her respectfully. And leave the trial to the courtroom.

Geneva Overholser initiated the challenge to the practice of withholding the names of rape victims in 1989, while serving as editor of the Des Moines Register. The paper won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 1991 for reporting by Jane Schorer that, with consent, named a woman who had been raped.


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