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Debate continues on naming rape victims

Rape victims

Most news organizations agree that rape victims shouldn’t be named.

By Sarah Hasselquist

The sexual assault on a woman known as the “Central Park Jogger” happened on a Wednesday in April 1989 and was reported by the media by the end of the week.

Her name is Trisha Meili, but she was known in the media as the “Central Park Jogger” even in November 1989, while the alleged attackers were brought to court, indicted and then identified by full names and ages. Her identity remained a secret until March 2003, when she chose to release her name.

In an interview with CNN’s Soledad O’Brien, Meili expressed her relief that the media had respected her privacy as it had for so many years.

“After such a horrendous attack and violation, I had so much taken away from me,” Meili said. “I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t talk clearly or think clearly. I couldn’t remember how to tell time. … I needed a place to heal without the sometimes invasive scrutiny of the press.”

With her recovery and 14 years of remaining unnamed in the media, she wrote a book and slapped her alias of “Central Park Jogger” and her full name on the front cover. What happened here?

“It’s been a long process,” Meili said, “and I had thought about it for some time, and I just decided that the time was right. That I felt good enough about myself that I wanted to share my story, to tell other people and to help them get through whatever the ordeal is that they’re trying to get through.”

Withholding crime victims’ identities is a standard practice by nearly all newspapers, with only a few exceptions: when victims choose to come forward as Meili did and when victims go to court, as it could be argued that the victims are taking initiative and stepping into the public spotlight.

Still, most media withhold the victim’s identity when just reporting the crime, though some journalists believe that releasing the rape victims’ name would be beneficial for society.

Journalists believe in withholding identities

Duluth News Tribune Executive Editor Rob Karwath said in a phone interview that his newspaper generally does not identify victims unless the victims made a conscious decision to come forward and tell their story.

“If people want to talk, we certainly want to tell their stories. I think there’s always something to be learned from those experiences,” Karwath said.

He said he does not believe that victims should be named without their consent.

“Another editor argued that by getting them to speak up more, that it de-stigmatized the victimization,” he said. “I can see that logic, but I’m going to leave it up to those on the unfortunate end of the victimization (the victims). … You (editors) may be legally protected, I just don’t think it’s the right thing to do.”

Editor Jana Peterson of the Budgeteer in Duluth, Minn., said in a phone interview that her smaller, weekly newspaper doesn’t report sexual assaults, saying that the Budgeteer is more of a “community feel-good newspaper.”

She added that if the Budgeteer did start reporting sexual assaults, her personal policy would be to not release rape victim names and she would adopt a formal policy like that of the Duluth News Tribune’s. Similar to the Duluth News Tribune, she said, her newspaper would report a sexual assault if a victim came to the newspaper and wanted their story to be told. But she would still be willing to provide the victim protection.

“I would give them the option of using a false name,” she said, “provided that I could verify the story so that I could make sure they’re not someone off the street making up things.”

Karwath, however, said that the Duluth News Tribune wouldn’t share that policy with the Budgeteer. He said he would rather use, for example, “the 41-year-old woman said” than use an alias or a name without the victim’s consent when telling the story.

“We don’t like to do that (using aliases). I think whenever the alias thing comes up, we are introducing an untruth into the story, and if you’re doing that, readers ask ‘how much of the rest of this can I really believe?’” Karwath said.

Ron Brochu, executive editor of Telegram in Superior, Wisc., said in a phone interview that his weekly newspaper, too, would only name rape victims if reporting a sexual assault where the victim wanted to be named. Otherwise, without consent, they would not reveal the victim.

He added that publishing a victim’s name without consent would be “a pretty (mean) thing, I think, to do to someone who’s already been victimized. It puts them in a situation where they’re going to be victimized all their life.”

He, like Karwath, also said he disapproved of giving the option of aliases to rape victims who come forward to tell their story.

“We don’t go with aliases, we just don’t,” Brochu said. “When you give people anonymity, it gives a source a license to stretch things.”

These Northland editors are not out in left field when it comes to their policies of withholding rape names. According to a study in the Newspaper Research Journal, “While some victim advocates and readers see the press as free-wheeling and uncaring … this study indicated that newspapers are not eager to print the names of rape victims. Indeed, only in a very limited number of atypical rape cases are most editors willing to do this.”10

Reporting rape by media and by victims

As Brochu pointed out, the media’s reports of a victim’s rape case might seem to the victim like a second assault.

Helen Benedict, a journalist and author of “Virgin or Vamp: How the Press Covers Sex Crimes,” argues that naming victims would only cause them pain and wouldn’t amount to any greater change, and thus there is a need to protect victims.

“To name a rape victim is to guarantee that whenever somebody hears her name, that somebody will picture her in the act of being sexually tortured,” Benedict wrote in her book.

Lynn Parrish, the vice president of communications at the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), added another argument in a phone interview for why the media shouldn’t barge in and report the crime using the name of the victim: It might cause fewer people to come forward and report.

“Everyone responds differently to rape and assault,” said Parrish. “For some (being named is) a way they can take back their lives. Others feel more comfortable not going out with their name.”

She emphasized her concern with the individual cases and said that she wants to encourage all victims to come forward and report to the police.

“If more victims feel more comfortable coming forward without their names being released, we want that,” Parrish said.

A 1992 study by the National Victim Center and the Crime Victims Research and Treatment Center found evidence supporting Parrish’s statement: “86 percent of American women said rape victims would be less likely to report a rape to police if they believed that their names would be released to the news media.”

Parrish added that it was important for rape victims to know that it wasn’t their fault, contrary to the stigma the society has about sexual assault victims, and that if rape victims released their names, they might be able to reduce the strength of that stigma.

The threat of the stigma and being victimized again

Geneva Overholser, who worked at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, the Des Moines Register and The New York Times, would likely appreciate Meili’s coming forward, albeit 14 years after the attack. She advocates the destruction of the stigma surrounding rape victims by publishing rape victims’ names. Still, Overholser said in an article in 1989, she understands why newspapers wouldn’t use names: the seemingly inevitable stigma.

“No crime is more horribly invasive, more brutally intimate,” she wrote. “In no crime does the victim risk being blamed, and in so insidious a way: She asked for it; she wanted it. Perhaps worst of all, there's the judgment: She's damaged goods — less desirable, less marriageable.”

She added that she understood the argument, too, of how the victim might feel victimized twice because of the media’s reporting, and that she would not want to identify victims without consent for the sake of creating change.

In Overholser’s article, she took a different perspective on how reporting might help lessen the stigma by looking at other groups that were unaccepted socially, and she noted that when more reporting was done on these groups, their standing in society improved.

She said that people talking about and newspapers reporting on gay issues have matured society’s understanding of homosexuality. She applied the same theory to AIDS and abortions. Likewise, she argued, if rapes are reported on more often and with names, people will become more aware of the problem, and more can be done in society to alleviate the stigma that goes with sexual assault and to help discourage or prevent sexual assaults.

“I believe that we will not break down the stigma until more and more women take public stands. … As long as rape is deemed unspeakable – and is therefore not fully and honestly spoken of – the public outrage will be muted as well,” Overholser said.

On the other hand, Overholser is apparently part of the minority of editors who feel this way.  “Only 22.6 percent (of newspaper editors interviewed) said they believed identifying a rape victim would help remove the stigma,” according to the study published in the Newspaper Research Journal.

The way rapes are reported in the media is likely not to change until the victims speak up even though journalists like Overholser feel as strongly as they do because of the expectations of victims, editors and community members. If victims come forward and ask for reporters to tell their stories, then perhaps society’s stigma might disappear.

Coordinating reporting

A 1990 New York Times article says that Nancy Ziegenmeyer of Grinnell, Iowa, came across one of Overholser’s writings on how the media reports rapes while sitting in a library. Having been raped just nine months earlier, she was researching the laws about sexual assault. Overholser’s article argued that victims should come forward to report the crimes for the alleviation of the stigma that goes along with the assault. Ziegenmeyer was convinced; she wanted to tell her story through the newspaper and using her name.

Ziegenmeyer said in an article about this decision that she wanted to make people aware of the issue and to possibly prevent rapes.

“I come from a small Midwestern town, and this only happened in places like Los Angeles or Dallas or New York or Chicago,” the article quoted her as saying. “I was from Iowa. I had never given it a thought. But now I'm going to do my damnedest to keep it from happening to another woman.”

A series of stories was published describing every step of the process from when her attacker approached her to when the attacker’s verdict was read. Overholser admitted that there were two things in particular that might upset readers: description of the assault because it was described in graphic detail and the racial element because she was risking reinforcing a stereotype by telling a story where a black man raped a white woman.

“We decided that running the series would do more good than harm. We decided to run it,” Overholser said. “We did have a couple of people say that more harm than good was done, but overwhelmingly, the response was positive.”

The articles had an impact on the readers; some thought the “disgusting and degrading details” were too much for a “family newspaper.” Many others wrote to the articles’ author and Ziegenmeyer to reveal their own sexual assaults and to express gratitude that Ziegenmeyer had stepped forward and told her story because it strengthened others who had gone through something similar.

View from the other side

While the victim’s reputation is oftentimes the focus of concern, there is another side to this picture. One article asserted that it might be unfair for the accused to be named and not the accuser:

“You're guilty once you’re (publicly) accused of rape,” said Stephen Isaacs, a professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism who teaches a course on journalistic ethics. He said in a phone interview that the gravity of the accusation is such that even those who aren't convicted are forever branded.

The article also said that Overholser had written in an e-mail that “the media cannot have the wisdom ‘to decide whom to protect when there has been no determination of guilt of innocence.’”

Overholser added that she wanted to see naming become a typical practice in newsrooms in hopes of lessening the stigma and shame that victims deal with when they report the assault.

“On all the tough problems, from AIDS to teen suicide to drug addiction to priests who abuse children, society has made progress when the truth is told. When real people talk about real experiences. When names are named,” Overholser wrote.

With victims coming forward to talk about their experiences and draw attention to the issue of rape, Overholser and Meili are hopeful to make a difference.

“And I'm going out,” Meili said, “and speaking to different groups about the idea that there is hope and possibility, that, yes, you can come back from it.”

Sarah Hasselquist is a student at the University of Minnesota Duluth. This article was written as part of a media law and ethics class at the University of Minnesota Duluth. The comments in these articles are the opinions of individuals and don't represent the opinions of the University of Minnesota.