Crime and Its Victims
Rape and Sexual Assault Victims
During the 1990s, an average of 366,460 people each year, most of
them women, were victims or rape or sexual assault, says the federal
crime victimization survey. Most cases were not reported to the
police, most commonly because the victim viewed the incident as
a personal matter or feared reprisal.
Interviews with rape or sexual assault victims offer a special,
and oft-debated set of circumstances. The names of rape victims
continue to be the best-kept secrets in most newsrooms. The practice
of withholding names is as widely accepted as it is widely debated.
Many news organizations nationally view not naming rape victims
as a matter of policy or tradition. Two states, Florida and South
Carolina, still prohibit the publication of rape victims' names,
but the constitutionality of those statutes is uncertain. In 1982,
a Kansas State University study found that 68 percent of the editors
surveyed believed that names of rape victims should not be printed.
In 1990, another survey of editors, this one by the Association
for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, indicated that
about 10 percent believed that the rape victims' names should never
be printed; 40 percent believed that they should be printed only
with the victims' permission; and 44 percent believed that they
should be printed only in exceptional cases.
Some media outlets are taking a new look at their policies on
covering rape. A 1994 Texas Christian University survey of newspaper
editors found that the topic of rape coverage had been discussed
extensively in respondents' newsrooms, with nearly 60 percent of
editors noting that their papers had seriously re-examined its
policy on rape identification and 55 percent reporting that they
had re-examined their policy on rape coverage in general. In addition,
more than 40 percent of editors believed their newspaper was more
sensitive toward rape victims than it was 5 years before, and more
than 50 percent said they believed newspapers as a whole were more
sensitive. Almost one-fourth of the editors (23 percent) disagreed
with the idea that routine printing of the names of rape victims
would remove the stigma of rape. Only 24 percent of editors agreed
that not printing names of rape victims was a violation of the
public's right to know. The survey also indicated that editors
believe that the decision to withhold a name should be the newspaper's
and not mandated by legislation prohibiting the press from publishing
the name of a sexual assault victim. Almost three fourths of editors
believed that such laws should be repealed because they violate
the First Amendment.
However, the next generation of journalists is not so sure that
rape victims should not be named. A U.S. newsroom policy study conducted
in 2000 by the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass
Communication found that more than 50 percent of journalism students
believe policy should rewritten and broadened. These future editors
and newsroom managers agreed that rape victim names should be published,
but only if the victim asks for or consents to identification. Through
this change, the journalists decided, the impact of social stigma
attached to the crime would be lessened and rape victims would receive
It's not uncommon for reporters to avoid doing rape stories because
the challenge is so large and the feedback is so varied. Most difficult,
too, is the interaction with the victim. Rape victims will often
experience a phases of despair and of bitter anger. The most common
reason given by victims of sexual assault for reporting the crime
to the police was to prevent further crimes by the offender against
them. The most common reason cited by the victim for not reporting
the crime to the police was that it was considered a personal matter.
Therefore, any possibility of media publicity can make a victim
shy away. According to a report called Rape in America: A Report
to the Nation by the National Victim Center, an advocacy group,
84 percent of rape victims in America do not report the crime to
police. Half of rape victims (50 percent) would be "a lot more
likely to report" to police if there was a law prohibiting
the news media from disclosing their name and address; 16 percent
indicated that they would be "somewhat more likely to report"
rapes to the police. Almost 9 out of 10 women (86 percent) felt
victims would be "less likely" to report rapes if they
felt their names would be disclosed by the news media. An overwhelming
majority of women (75 percent), rape victims (78 percent), and rape
service agencies (91 percent) favored legislation that would prohibit
media disclosure of rape victims' names.
Kelly McBride, a member of ethics faculty at The Poynter Institute,
a Florida-based journalism training center and think tank, believes
much has changed in the news business since policies of not naming
rape victims were drafted in the late 1970s after decades of the
practice without the policy. McBride suggests in an article called
"The Truth about Rape" that those decisions coincided
with the rise of rape crisis centers in many communities throughout
the 1970s. There, not only did rape victims find an advocate, she
wrote, journalists found sources that could tell the truth about
the devastation of rape. The guidelines, she wrote, were justified
on these grounds:
- Rape is different from other crimes. Society often blames
the victims. Studies show rape victims suffer from the stigma of
being "damaged" by the experience.
- Rape victims are less likely to report the crime if they
know their names will be published or broadcast. Rape is already
the most underreported violent crime in the country.
- Because rape victims are treated with such insensitivity
by society, they deserve a level of privacy not afforded other crime
Critics of the guidelines say withholding the names of rape victims
violates the principles of fairness and balance. Those accused of
rape are almost always named. For the most part, journalists agree
with that criticism, but justify the guidelines because of the harm
caused by naming rape victims in a public forum. Now, though, "no
moment is too private, no event too personal," McBride writes.
Therefore, McBride believes a new conversation about rape and the
media is necessary. McBride suggests that the discussions not be
limited to the crime reporters, their editors and the style czar.
Within every news organization there are people with personal experiences
of sexual assault, in addition to members of the community who may
have insight. Some important questions may be how can newspapers
and television stations best serve their communities when covering
such crimes? In addition, McBride believes it's important for journalists
to be better informed about rape from all aspects, including doctors,
researchers, counselors and law enforcement officials.
Though there is no clear indication that newsroom will change their
policies regarding naming sexual assault victims, the discussion
does continue. At the Detroit Free Press, for example, the
newspaper generally follows the alleged victim's preference. Still,
because on deadline the reporters and editors don't know what that
preference is, they err on the side of caution by stating: The
Free Press in most cases does not identify people who allege
they are sex crime victims or the Free Press in most cases
does not identify sex crime victims. It seems that for most editors
there is a consensus: Naming names or not naming names may not be
the most important test, but rather to accurately report on, and
perhaps restructure, the coverage of rape in America.
the next page in "Chapter 6: Journalism Ethics" >>>
<<< Return to the previous
page in "Chapter 5: Covering Crime and Its Victims"