Rape Victims: Papers Shouldn't Name Us

By Haws, Dick | American Journalism Review, September 1996 | Go to article overview

Rape Victims: Papers Shouldn't Name Us


Haws, Dick, American Journalism Review


Given all the charged emotions and political overtones of a crime like rape, most newsrooms choose to err on the side of caution when formulating policy on whether to name rape victims in news stories. But not North Carolina's Winston-Salem Journal, where rape victims have been named as a matter of routine since 1971 (see Free Press, July/August 1992).

And while it might be agonizing for editors to decide whether to name a rape victim, it is the victim who must live with the consequences of that decision. Such consequences were the subject of a survey of 18 rape victims named in the Journal conducted by me and Melody Ramsey, a graduate student at Iowa State University.

We thought that perhaps the conclusions of our study would run contrary to the conventional wisdom that identifying rape victims increases the victim's trauma. Such a conclusion would support the Journal's policy, which, according to Managing Editor Carl M. Crothers, is based on "the newspaper's longstanding commitment to treat rape like any other violent crime, truthfully and factually." However, the overwhelming response from the women surveyed was that they still were angry at having been identified, and that they still were fighting to cope with the effects of the Journal's policy. The policy calls for the victim, if an adult, as well as the assailant, to be identified when, but not before, an arrest is made in a rape case.

In the spirit of objectivity, the Journal argues that there are always two sides to rape stories. Crothers says that the Journal's policy aims to be fair to both the accuser and the accused. "Once a man is accused of rape he faces the considerable prosecutorial powers of the state and is deserving of fair treatment under the law," he says. "Naming the accuser provides a level of balance and a presumption of innocence."

Though the sample of identified rape victims in our survey was a small one, it was nevertheless the most comprehensive of its kind to date. And its conclusions were hardly vague.

Fifteen of the 18 women reported that, despite the fact that the Journal's policy has been in place for 25 years, they were unaware that they would be named in the paper when they decided to report their rapes to the police. The three women who were aware of the policy said it gave them pause when they were deciding whether to report the crime. "I was hesitant to file charges against the person who raped me twice, repeatedly threatened to kill me...all because I knew that my name would appear in the Winston-Salem Journal," wrote one woman.

Fear of being identified was so paramount in three of the women surveyed that they said it definitely would have kept them from reporting the rape if they had known beforehand that their names would appear in the paper. "It takes years to recover from something as small as a paragraph of exposure in the newspaper," wrote one woman.

While it's not unusual for rape victims to feel embarrassment, shame and blame after being raped, 13 of the 18 women surveyed said publicity increased their embarrassment, 13 said it heightened their feelings of shame, and 10 said they felt more as if they were to blame for the rape.

"I just couldn't deal with seeing people in my communal office hiding the paper when I walked into the office," one woman wrote.

Another woman complained that the Journal story about her rape caused classmates of her school-aged children to fear that she might have contracted AIDS.

But the Journal argues that its policy is aimed at reducing the stigma of rape. "We believe reporting rape cases should be done fully and with care and sensitivity," Crothers says. "We are not untouched by the emotional pain suffered by victims, but we feel strongly that we are making a statement in this community that rape should no longer carry a stigma for the victim and be a source for shame and embarrassment."

But 13 of the women said that being identified in the Journal increased their feelings of vulnerability at a time when they were trying to heal. …

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