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How Identifying Rape Victim Affects Readers' Perceptions

Article excerpt

Journalists face a dilemma in reporting on rape. Public interest demands full coverage of crime, punishment and the criminal-justice system, but reporting certain aspects of rape may further traumatize rape victims. In particular, rape victims seem to object to the reporting of their names. Victims, counselors and others believe publication of victims' names will result in public humiliation, ostracism and even retaliation.

Many journalists share victims' belief. Yet they also are troubled by the idea of omitting information from stories - particularly when that information would be included in stories of crimes other than rape. Even when journalists consider that society treats rape differently from other crimes, they find few simple answers. Journalists can make strong arguments for withholding the names of child victims. But in situations where many community members already know an adult victim's name - such as the 1991 rape trial of William Kennedy Smith - not naming the victim makes less obvious sense.

Journalists have little empirical information on which to base their decisions. As yet, no studies have looked at how the inclusion - or exclusion - of victims' names in news stories influences public opinion. This study begins to explore this area by looking at how victim identification in news stories affects the way readers view victims, responsibility for crimes and the educational value of news stories on rape.

Key questions in the study were:

* Do readers see naming rape victims in the news as a harmful practice?

* Does naming victims increase readers' interest in stories about rape?

* Do readers find stories more effective in educating people about crime if victims' names are included in stories?

* Does naming victims affect the amount of sympathy readers feel for victims?

* Does victim identification affect readers' estimation of the way crime alters victims' lives?

* Does the use of victims' names affect the way readers assign responsibility for the crime to victims and suspects?

Background

While the issue of rape-victim identification seems less current than it did in the early 1990s when reporters swarmed to cover the William Kennedy Smith and Mike Tyson trials, journalists who cover crime and courts still have to make decisions about whether to name victims in their stories.(1) In 1997, California Community Newspapers editors confronted the unusual situation of how to cover sexual-assault charges filed against one of their columnists by a city councilwoman.(2) Journalists covering the Waco hearings received public criticism for identifying rape victim Kiri Jewel.(3) At Marshall University in West Virginia, the student newspaper's decision to name rape victims resulted in the college president transferring control of the paper from the journalism department to a more conservative student publications board.(4) And in Minnesota, a rape victim was forced to go public to correct errors in the initial reporting of her story.(5)

Most journalists probably are familiar with the arguments for and against naming rape victims. Some commentators say journalists should publish sex-crime victims' names because doing so promotes truth and helps reduce the stigma of the crime.(6) A small number of journalists also say sex-crime victims should be named because it is journalists' obligation to put all available facts before the public so people can make informed decisions.(7)

Other journalists and victims' advocates counter by saying that in a perfect world, sex-crime victims would not be stigmatized, but since the world is not perfect, journalists shouldn't make victims' ordeals worse.(8) Until society's view of women and rape changes, victims will continue to be harassed or shunned and, as a consequence, probably will be reluctant to report the crime.

Many journalists and scholars believe rape-victim identification is an ethical issue to be dealt with through careful reasoning. …