Issues to examine in rape reporting

A response to Taking Sides – Clashing Views in Mass Media and Society – Issue 5

In his memo to NBC news staff, Michael Gartner gives his rational for printing the name of the alleged rape victim in the William Kennedy Smith case and argues such names should be printed in most cases.  Katha Pollitt, on the other hand, says there are no good reasons to print a victim’s name.

Gartner has four main points to make.  First, the job of the news media is to disseminate news, not to cover it up or leave out facts that are important to the story.  Second, giving the victim the decision takes it out of the editors’ hands and rape is the only case in which this is even considered.  Third, not naming rape victims plays in to the stereotype that there is something shameful about being raped, where the rapist is the only one who should feel any shame.  And fourth, that news media consistently report the names of rape suspects, even if they haven’t been formally charged, and fairness dictates the same be done with the accuser.

Pollitt disagrees.  She says that the media often cover up things and leave out salient for other reasons, that anonymity for accusers is standard practice in America and not unfair, and that the press is uneven with its use of anonymity-demanding it for sources but denying it to rape victims.  Pollitt says that printing the name along with information about the accuser does not treat rape like other crimes because it call into question if the accuser was asking for it and that naming does nothing to dispel the stigma of being raped.

Personally I’m perfectly willing to keep a rape victim’s name anonymous.  As a rule I’m wary of anonymous sources and leaving names out of a story, but I think there are good reasons to, and the emotional pain that would come from publicity of rape is one of them.  Related to all of this is how the news media cover rape in general.  Working on the Transcript, we’ve come under fire for reporting on rape at all.  There are plenty of women (and probably some men) who don’t think the news media should even report a rape occurred on a campus this small, because people might be able to figure out who it was.  Pollitt made a point I think is telling when she asked where the media is at the thousands of Take Back the Night demonstrations-most likely, they’ve been specifically excluded.  Every year, dozens of date rapes and worse happen on this campus, yet no one ever hears about it.  Going to Take Back the Night amazes people-so many women have been violated, but no one ever brings the issue up.  That’s exactly the problem-because of the emotional distress and shame surrounding rape, many victims never even report it to the school, let along the police or the Transcript, who would happily plead their case and leave their name out of it.  The over-arching silence is not helping anybody and leads people to believe it’s not a problem.  It is a problem, but the media cannot expose it if no one is talking.