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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.

The ethics of objectivity

In their article, William Rowley and William Grimes argue that objectivity can be redefined to become a valid objective for journalists, while Theodore Glasser argues that objectivity-even an amended notion of it-is just a way for journalists to cover their butts and not serve the public.

Rowley and Grimes acknowledge the historical roots and problems with objectivity as a goal, but feel they can figure out a new, better interpretation of the term that journalists should strive for.  They describe three sub-principles that add up to a whole ideal.  The first, factual objectivity, is a matter of getting all the facts straight and putting them in a logical and understandable order.  Next is dramatic or aesthetic objectivity, which is a matter of story telling and attempting to include the emotional flavor of an event or experience.  The third is moral or ethical objectivity, which involves both reporting the larger, moral implications of a story and attempting to identify the reporter’s biases and not let them color the reporting.  The authors describe several very different stories all of which, they believe, came close to this new idea of objectivity, including Tom Wicker’s coverage of the Attica prison riot, the AP story about integration in Little Rock, Arkansas, Ernie Pyle’s World War II coverage and the Watergate story.

Glasser, on the other hand, traces objectivity as little more than an efficient way to do news that takes away the journalist’s responsibility for his or her work.  By only including the facts and taking him or herself out of the story, a journalist doesn’t have to be responsible, he says, and brings up Edwards v. National Audubon Society where the New York Times argued it should print an accusation even if it could be false-they were reporting the accusation, not making it.  Another problem cited is the tendency to accept official sources and he status quo.  Also, Glasser says objectivity robs reporters of creativity and analysis.

I’m not sure I really understand Rowley and Grimes’ three-section definition for objectivity.  Perhaps if they just used a different term, like “truthfulness,” it would make more sense to talk about being objective in reporting emotion.  Even for a totally subjective piece, like an opinion column or book, writing about other people’s emotional states is walking in a land mine-you don’t really know how they feel, after all.  It’s easy to talk about obvious cases, like saying soldiers in World War II were tired, or that a crowd is howling and shrieking.  But what about the emotional state of a serial killer?  It’s an important issue that people no doubt want to know about, but how can you be emotionally objective in any sense when the accused may be innocent, raging inside, completely cold-blooded or clinically insane?  Any of those could be ready from an impassive face in a courtroom.

I’m not saying we should not report emotional or ethical issues.  But I still think it’s important to separate what is undeniable fact (the man is accused of murder) from what someone has said (the prosecutor thinks he did it, his mother doesn’t) from what may be pure speculation (his calm demeanor seemed to be reptilian and cold-blooded).  I recognize many of Glasser’s arguments, but I’m still not convinced we should throw those distinctions out when writing.

Electronic Beat: Internet Ethics and Speech

Compiled by Jason Morrison

Last updated 28 Oct 1999

The following links send you to sites I’ve found useful in my search for a system of ethics for the internet. The plan is to eventually compare this ethical system or series of systems with those used by journalists. Because of the structure of the net, it may prove useful to define three different groups for which systems of ethics may be written:

  1. Users (who view web pages, purchase products, etc.),
  2. Publishers (who create and maintain web pages, write articles, and sell products),
  3. and Governing Bodies (who maintain domain names, national governments, and other groups in a position to enhance/alter the flow of information between the above).

The third category seems to have the most rigorous ethical systems devised, not by members of that category but usually by watchdog-type organizations and free speech organizations. In short, those with a vested interest in the actions of members of category three.

Category one, on the other hand, is a bit less interesting. Most of what I’ve found so far are lists of ‘netiquette’ dos and don’ts. Still, there may very well be something more out there, and I will continue to look.

I have yet to find much in category two, but I believe that is because most web publishers approach their work as and extension of their current profession, i.e. journalists, advertisers, scholars, etc. It is also interesting to note that because of the ease of publishing on the web, John Q. User from category one may also have a homepage placing him in category two as well. The lines between one and two are often blurred by the nature of the medium.

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