A Public Affair

February 16, 2011 § 1 Comment

My capstone class is one that I was initially very reluctant to take: Journalism and Democracy is a course advertised as the “capstone for people who no longer want to do journalism after graduation,” and I was extremely displeased when I didn’t make my first capstone choice.

However, it has turned out to be much better than I expected. The work is probably less practical [and just less in general], but our readings and discussions on ethical issues and how journalism relates to democracy make for some interesting brain food.

Today, we read Ethics: Going Public with Rape from Time magazine and debated the pros and cons of publishing a rape victim/accuser’s name in print. It doesn’t seem like a big deal at first, but editors have to go through a number of ethical processes before coming to a decision. Even my professor admitted to being torn on the issue.

Our visceral reaction is to probably take the side of not publishing victims’ names. I frowned in class when I was assigned to the “pro-publishing” side of the debate. To have that kind of personal trauma broadcasted publicly seems like the wrong decision automatically. And there’s the very real possibility of the “secondary injury,” which would impede the victim’s recovery. You could also argue for the potential of the perpetrator to find and harass the victim, though 84% of women know their attacker, according to I Never Called It Rape by Robin Warshaw, so the accused being able to discover the name is not the problem.

As journalists [and rational people in general], however, we can’t base these ethical decisions on immediate reactions.

Rape is one of the most underreported crimes both in terms of being reported to the police as well as reported in the news. The impetus for the story in Time was Nancy Ziegenmeyer’s decision to let the Des Moines Register publish her name, by which “she hoped to focus attention on this underreported crime and thereby prevent other women from being raped.”

Rape as a crime is treated differently than other crimes. If a woman is beaten up and mugged, it wouldn’t be such a difficult decision to publish her name as opposed to if she were raped. The difference in treatment could be valid. Or you could blame it on “society.” In any case, journalists have a duty to take the more ethical decision.

One obstacle is the widespread practice of victim-blaming. “Naming cannot be divorced from blaming,” Katha Pollitt wrote in a 1991 article on the subject. It’s been two decades, but “she deserved it” is still an implied or explicit response from many. This ignited a short vent from one of my female classmates whose guy friend always tells his female friends to “be careful and make good decisions” when they go out. Even though his advice might be given out of genuine concern, let’s not forget that rape is a deliberate crime, not some occupational hazard. Men could use more of the “scantily clad does not mean TOUCH ME and neither does a fancy dinner” lesson.
“There seems to be an emerging consensus that women should be encouraged to admit that they have been victims of a form of assault for which they need bear no guilt,” wrote Andrea Sachs in the Time article, which is notably from 1990.

Nothing has changed much since then. Most newspapers stand by the policy of not publishing victims’ names, but that hasn’t ostensibly benefitted society as a whole. Rape is still stigmatized and underreported. My professor pointed out that by hiding the names of accusers, it makes it seem like there’s something to hide. Certainly, I wouldn’t expect a rape victim to tell the whole world about his or her experience, but nothing is going to change if we don’t question the status quo. I also wouldn’t expect an individual woman to “become the face of” a crime she didn’t bring upon herself, just like Rihanna didn’t go around addressing teenagers about domestic abuse after the Chris Brown fiasco.

Another related issue that I learned about in sociology was that many times, the press focuses too much on the victim. Rape is somewhat sensationalized, and so the details of the crime tend to render the rapist invisible with something as simple as language. “The woman was raped” should be changed to “The alleged offender raped the woman” lest we forget that rape doesn’t just happen by chance.

In the end, my group decided that the best choice would be to only publish victims’ names with their consent. I’m not even sure if this blog post made sense because I’m simply regurgitating my thoughts as well as built-up frustrations at the system — I could probably write on and on about how much I hate how rape is handled in our society.

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