When is it OK for the media to name rape victims?

Just because a rape victim chooses to identify herself does not mean news organizations should necessarily follow suit

November 29, 2013 6:00AM ET
Attendees of a rally in Maryville, Mo., on Oct. 22, 2013, organized on the Internet on behalf of a girl who says she was sexually assaulted nearly two years ago when she was 14.
Diana Reese for Al Jazeera America

What if you became famous for the worst thing that ever happened to you?

“I’m nothing more than just human, but I also refuse to be a victim of cruelty any longer,” wrote a 16-year-old from Maryville, Mo., on Oct. 18 on the website xoJane. “This is why I am saying my name.” She recounted her story of being raped by a classmate from a politically connected family after the charges against the man were abruptly dropped. She had appeared on CNN a few days earlier. A blog post on its website stated, “CNN does not typically identify alleged victims of sexual assault but has done so in this case” because the teen and her mother “have chosen to go public.”

The rare occurrence of an alleged minor rape victim identifying herself whipped up a public and an Internet hungry for true-crime narratives and justice vigilantism.

The protests have since ended, the cameras departed, and Twitter — that journalists’ water cooler — has moved on. The attention led to a re-examination of her case, which advocates call a victory, but no court date has been set, and a conviction is far from guaranteed. What remains is a teenage girl whose life has been forever changed. Countless news outlets named her after she named herself, throwing out their policies against naming alleged rape victims by disclaiming that she did it first. (The Kansas City Star was the first to identify her in October, after she and her mother went to the paper with her story.) Some stories contributed to an important conversation about rape culture and the stigma of assault, but others just rehashed the grisly details. (Two weeks ago, The Miami Herald published “Before the horror: A teen gang-rape victim’s tortured soul,” a 2,200-word report that narrates in painful detail the gang rape of a 16-year-old. Her first name was used, providing a degree of anonymity to the victim. Nonetheless, the story felt like an attempt to ride the wave of attention devoted to Maryville.)

The press should treat stories about minors who are alleged rape victims with care rather than simply naming one because she chooses to name herself. In other words, the disclaimer that she did it first is not enough. 

Extra precautions

Many journalists disagree with the argument that using a rape victim’s name is permissible just because it is already out there. Journalistic policies not to name victims of sexual assault have ethical and humanitarian roots and emerged, in part, from now defunct, overly broad state laws against doing so. Newsrooms have tended to honor the spirit of such laws by muzzling themselves. They do so to protect victims from further scrutiny and stigma, to protect the accused’s right to be presumed innocent and not to instigate a trial of the case in the public square instead of in court.

Writing at Poynter.org about a kidnapping and rape case in California more than a decade ago, Bob Steele, who teaches journalistic ethics at DePauw University, insisted that a victim’s identifying himself or herself does not excuse journalists from learning the answers to important ethical questions before choosing to publish names.

“I would not identify them just because they said it was OK," he wrote. "I would want to know what crisis counseling they received before agreeing to go public. I would want to know how much professional help they’d received to deal with their trauma. I would want to know what guidance they’d received in making such a profound decision about agreeing to attach their name to the words, ‘rape victim.’ But, since I don’t know the answers to my concerns, you won’t find their names in this column.”

Steele’s concerns are salient ones. However, to resolve them requires significant time and resources from already overstretched journalists. It is hard enough to pursue such issues with regard to adult victims; for minors, this information might be even tougher to ascertain. Refraining from naming them without knowing the details of their circumstances should be not only a journalistic prerequisite but a moral one. 

Justice for the unnamed

Advocates argue that rape victims who choose to name themselves destigmatize the crime, potentially buttress their case against their abusers and encourage others to report assaults. While more than half of rape victims do not report their assaults, in part for fear of being outed as victims in the press, the last decade has conjunctively seen reports spike, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. Its goal is for all victims to report attacks so that crimes can be investigated — “just as every murder is,” reads its website. This is unlikely, and whether to report should be the victim’s prerogative. (Even more disheartening to victims and their advocates, a Justice Department survey found that rape is drastically undercounted because of poor metrics.)

For cases in which the crime is reported but a minor’s name is withheld — by the court and the press — progress toward justice can still happen. In a sexual-abuse case I covered a year ago, the court sealed the 17-year-old victim’s name because she was a minor. While those of us who covered the trial knew her name, we never wrote it in our news reports. Her Satmar ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., also knew her identity, but her husband said that anonymity in the outside world helped her get through the trial that convicted her abuser, a prominent community counselor. New York’s rape shield law (PDF), which is stronger than some other states’, likely helped protect the victim. Such laws limit the defense’s ability to question an alleged rape victim about past sexual behavior; in this case, the judge did not permit inclusion of her diary entries or an alleged sex tape. Still, the defense made insinuations about the victim’s unsavory sexual past by vacillating between her maiden and married names and focusing on her relationship with an ex-boyfriend.

Rape laws vary in strength from state to state. If the Maryville teen’s case sees trial, Missouri’s shield law does not necessarily prevent the defense from focusing on her sexual past (or behavior that could imply an active one, like interactions with male classmates). If a court date is set, the defense could use her public commentary against her, perhaps calling it fame seeking. Alcohol was involved, so her memory and credibility could be questioned. Oregon’s stronger rape-shield law prohibits introducing “reputation or evidence showing that the manner of dress of an alleged victim indicated consent,” but Missouri’s lacks that provision, which could open a channel for the defense to attack the alleged victim’s dress.

As the Williamsburg trial showed, convictions can be obtained even when the victim remains unnamed. Anonymity does not automatically impede justice. In fact, any detail available about an alleged victim could be used to attack her character and diminish her credibility in court. In the Williamsburg case, the abuser is serving a 50-year sentence, and while the victim’s path forward has not been without its troubles, she remains anonymous to the outside world and is working to move on. 

When to shine a light

Some media veterans stand by printing rape victims’ names, calling it freedom of speech or simply truthful reporting. Geneva Overholser supported naming alleged rape victims when she was the editor of The Des Moines Register, won a Pulitzer Prize for doing so and resigned from her position as a Poynter columnist and board member when editors withheld a victim’s name from her column about why naming is important. “I have yet to see ignorance effectively addressed by secrecy,” she wrote in the Poynter column.

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof contends that putting a face and name — even a child’s — on a problem is integral to solving it. “It’s impossible to get rape on the agenda when the victims are anonymous,” he wrote in 2010 in an apology to the Times for violating the paper’s policy against naming when he divulged the identity of a 9-year-old rape victim in Congo.

Still, many rightly asked whether the 9-year-old could reasonably consent to such a thing. It is fair and important to ask whether a 16-year-old can either. Though the Maryville teen may now be considered a public figure because she chose to identify herself, the answers to Steele’s ethical concerns remain unclear. And while she bravely took initiative by speaking out, she will likely wrestle all her life with the aftermath of this self-imposed public outing — and the news organizations that chose to identify her because she did it first will have contributed to that.

Each time a news organization publishes a story about Maryville or another case in which an alleged rape victim who is a minor chooses to name herself, it should evaluate whether the victim’s name should be attached, making every effort to answer questions about the counseling and guidance given to the minor. And it should seek to apply moral generosity in an era that might benefit from such a revolutionary act. 

Allison Yarrow is a writer and multimedia journalist. She is the author of the Amazon Kindle e-book “The Devil of Williamsburg,” a contributing writer at Time and a facilitator at the OpEd Project’s Northwestern Public Voices Fellowship Program. Previously she was an assignment editor and staff writer at The Daily Beast and a deputy editor of Forward.com.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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