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OUR CORNER: Rape coverage a moral test and balancing act for journalists
I want to use my space this week to discuss a sensitive issue: rape.
I bring the issue up because nationwide news coverage of high profile sexual assault cases seems to be appearing frequently in the past month; with a wide range of failure to success, depending on who you ask.
The case that pops to mind immediately is a particularly disturbing assault on an 11-year-old girl that took place in the small town of Cleveland, Texas.
I won't go into the details of the case itself, but almost larger than attention to the crime was the backlash against an article that ran March 9 in the New York Times.
Reporter James McKinley wrote an article that focused on the reaction of the town to the recently uncovered crime. Critics argued that McKinley blamed the victim for her rape. They cited the fact he listed the accused by arguably reputable social positions such as basketball players and a school board member's son (when, in fact, he also listed convicted criminals), that he used language such as "drawn into it" to describe the alleged rapists' motivations, and that he described the victim as dressing much older than her age and hanging out with older boys.
I found the paragraph referring to the girl's dress and company... let's say "unfortunate" (if you think someone's clothing is somehow relevant to their sexual assault, go rent Jodie Foster's "The Accused" and every similar movie since—you are living a 23-year-old cliche). the other two offending paragraphs seemed like a stretch—and that's putting it generously. I read the article several times, and I just couldn't bring myself to believe that the text sympathized with the alleged rapists.
It's worth noting that every sentence found reprehensible by critics—save for the description of the accuseds' social station—was a direct quote or paraphrasing of commentary by Cleveland locals. I would bet money—good money—that McKinley was horrified by the overwhelming attitude of the quotes he gathered and wanted to find a way to express said horror in his article without out-and-out editorializing.
If that was his intent, clearly it backfired.
But while everyone was spitting acid at the New York Times, a far more heinous misstep by its neighbor the New York Daily News went overlooked.
The Daily News also wrote a story about the Cleveland rape case, except this article was play-it-straight crime reportage, listing the accuseds' names and details of the crime, as opposed to local reactions. The Daily News reporter didn't shy away from calling the crime "nightmarish" and the alleged perpetrators "sickos."
But one line in the article began thusly: "The girl, whose name has not been released because of her age..."
Meaning: The reporter would have named the victim if she weren't a minor.
Policy varies from reporter-to-reporter and publication-to-publication, but naming the accuser in a rape case is a line I draw in the sand that I won't cross.
Devil's advocates might point out that accusers names are commonly printed in articles about other crimes, such as attempted murder.
What theft, murder and straightforward assault lack is a social stigma that attaches itself to the victim of the crime.
I don't think people question rape victims' morals because they don't think the crime is serious; I think people cast that doubt exactly because it's so serious. The crime is the most intimate of violent acts; even if the accused absolutely, provably did it beyond a shadow of a doubt, casual gawkers need to rationalize how someone could do something so awful.
Some papers will identify a victim by an indirect moniker, such as a middle name. Last week, I wrote a story related to a rape that took place more than 10 years ago, and the court papers I used as a source identified the accuser by her initials. I opted not to use a name at all.
My reasons are more idealistic than practical. Not printing a name doesn't immediately grant protection. Most recorded cases of backlash toward an accuser in a rape case come from friends and family (or sports fans, as has been the case in Cleveland) of the accused; people who would already know the names of everyone involved.
Reporters who do print names give a multitude of reasons for doing so: "Our rival is printing it so I should to," or, "It's all just information related to the case, why should I leave it out?"
But those reporters forget all the privileges they exercise in other cases. Off-the-record information, for example: When a source asks that something be off the record, there is no legally binding agreement taking place. The reporter is granting a courtesy.
Ultimately, my view is this: by writing an article, I'm creating a permanent record. One day, the survivor of sexual assault is going to try to close that dark chapter they didn't choose to author, perhaps finding a new setting, new characters unfamiliar with their past. The least I can do—the least anyone could do—is to not send the book after them on the road, snapping at their heels.