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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.

Women making news, as reporters and sources

In their article, Lynn Zoch and Judy VanSlyke Turk find women have less representation than men on both sides of the newsgathering business-both as reporters and as sources.  Their data also suggests that female reporters are more likely to quote women than male reporters and that the low female source representation may be an accurate reflection of a world where men dominate most official positions.

The authors broke the study up into five questions.  First they found reporters relying heavily on official sources.  About three quarters of all sources were identified as officials (middle or top management or simply called “officials”). Second, they found about 70 percent of the sources were male and that the imbalance was highest in international news and lowest in education and culture.  Male sources were also more likely to be earlier in the story and have longer quotes.  Third, they found that male and female reporters were equally likely to quote official sources, though female reporters were more likely to quote middle management than male reporters.  Fourth, women were more likely to use female sources than men, 26.5 percent to 18.9 percent, respectively.  Finally, they found that the answers to the first four questions suggested an answer to the fifth: that the media present an image of the world where information is controlled by (mostly) men in official positions.

None of the findings are very surprising.  There are still more male than female reporters, and the world of officaldom is still (and perhaps more) male-dominated.  At one point the authors suggest that the reasons female reporters are more likely to quote middle than top management include a lack of access to top officials or that they expect problems and settle with middle management.  Perhaps this is more related to the fact that they are more likely to use female sources and that there are more females in middle management than top.  If female reporters are, for example, actively seeking female sources, then they would be forced to quote fewer top officials, because almost all top officials are male.

The feminist critique of the newsroom

In “The Gendered Realities of Journalism” the author argues that female journalists face difficulties dealing with both the predominately male newsroom and the assumption that they cannot cover hard news.

The author points to several statistics to prove the first point: women only comprise about one third of the profession as a whole and perhaps 80 percent or more of the people in power-editors and management-are male.  Female journalists, on average, are paid less than male journalists and are less likely to be promoted; they are also excluded from the macho newsgathering and male-bonding aspect of the newsroom, making them outsiders rather than equal participants.  The author also mentions that female journalists have to strike a balance between seeming feminine and being tough, responsible journalists.

The author approaches the second difficulty first by looking at feminist critiques of objectivity.  Some feminists seek to root male subjectivity out of the norms of objectivity and go for gender-neutral reporting.  Others look for gender balance, ensuring there are equal number of male and female reporters and decision-makers.  A third group would dump objectivity altogether as an obviously male notion that facts can be separated from ideology and say that it only reinforces the patriarchy.  Furthermore, women are usually assigned to soft stories and their gut reactions-those praised in male reporters-are often dismissed.

I have a couple of problems with some of the ideas the author presented.  For one thing, I would like to see some data on the number of female journalists and the number in important positions compared to the number of actual applicants.  I agree that men should not be promoted over women simply because of outdated biases and macho camaraderie, but it’s possible part of the reason the number of women is so low is that there just aren’t enough applicants around.

Also, I have a hard time reconciling some feminists’ critique of objectivity as part of a male-imposed, male-oriented notion of truth.  I realize this is all tied into the feminist critique of Enlightenment thought and modern philosophy, but I don’t believe there’s necessarily male- and female- truth.  If just-the-facts objectivity is a flawed value because it is male-imposed and serves the patriarchy, why should women complain when they are only handed feature assignments?  I don’t see how someone could say one the one hand, that women should be given equally hard news assignments, and on the other, that hard news coverage is based upon inherently male notions and only serves to support the patriarchy.