Stalemate on Naming Rape Victims; No Clear Standards, No Easy Answers Emerge from IRE Panel

By McNichol, Dunstan A. | Editor & Publisher, August 10, 1991 | Go to article overview

Stalemate on Naming Rape Victims; No Clear Standards, No Easy Answers Emerge from IRE Panel


McNichol, Dunstan A., Editor & Publisher


Stalemate on naming rape victims

No clear standards, no easy answers emerge from IRE panel

NBC News president Michael Gartner had a simple message for the roomful of journalists awaiting his rationale for broadcasting the name of an alleged rape victim this year:

"The immediate issue is, I'm in the business of disseminating news, not suppressing it," Gartner told about 350 journalists packed into a Chicago meeting room for a debate on the merits of naming rape victims or protecting their privacy.

About 80 minutes later, despite sarcastic and caustic questioning from the audience, neither Gartner nor his three fellow panelists had moved the debate much further along.

Gartner earlier this year brought the rape privacy issue to a head by letting NBC name on air the south Florida woman who claims she was raped Easter weekend by William Kennedy Smith.

The panel discussion over the propriety of naming such victims was the centerpiece of the recent annual conference of Investigative Reporters and Editors in Chicago.

In more than an hour of sparring with an audience that applauded suggestions that rape victims should remain anonymous, the panelists revealed little to indicate whether future rape victims will be routinely named.

"I have to admit, I'm feeling pretty frustrated in trying to draw out of our panelists any standards," moderator Deb Nelson of the Chicago Sun-Times said more than an hour into the session.

Gartner offered little elaboration on his original statement. He digressed to criticize the use of anonymous sources as "horseshit journalism," and to chastise the Associated Press for refusing to carry the south Florida victim's name.

"I think they're making a moral judgment for 95% of the newspapers in this country," Gartner said. "I think that's a far greater threat than that those of us making these decisions might be wrong."

Two of Gartner's fellow panelists, Irene Nolan, managing editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal and Roger Cohen, who covers publishing for the New York Times, supported Gartner's decision in the Kennedy case.

Nolan said the issue of whether to name victims began to stir debate before the violent and highly publicized rape of a jogger in Central Park.

"As the debate went on and kind of reached a critical mass, this [the Kennedy case] was the case that some editors and network news presidents decided to step forward on," said Nolan.

She said the failure to name the Central Park victim left editors open to criticism when the alleged victim in the Kennedy case was publicized.

"People have said it gives the impression that you will protect a middle-class white woman who is raped by poor blacks, but you will not protect a woman who was involved in an alleged rape with wealthy politicians, the Kennedys," she said.

"I do think there's a perception there that's unfortunate, and I do wish in retrospect we had started out with the Central Park jogger case."

Nolan said newspapers often do not protect rape victims' privacy by omitting their names, since acquaintances of the victims often already are familiar with the case. Yet asked repeatedly to define what cases would warrant naming alleged victims, and whether victims will be named routinely from now on, Nolan and the other panelists did little more than reiterate Gartner's opinion:

"I agree we're in the business of disseminating news, of putting news in the paper and not finding reasons to keep it out of the paper," said Nolan, who has worked under Gartner in Louisville and who obtained the south Florida woman's name from NBC News. …

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