Media and Rape

By Tiffany Devitt and Steve Rhodes. Tiffany Devitt is Managing Editor of "Extra!", published Fair, the New York-based media watch group. Steve Rhodes is a Fair associate. | The Christian Science Monitor, April 26, 1991 | Go to article overview
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Media and Rape


Tiffany Devitt and Steve Rhodes. Tiffany Devitt is Managing Editor of "Extra!", published Fair, the New York-based media watch group. Steve Rhodes is a Fair associate., The Christian Science Monitor


THERE is one very good reason for the news media to withhold the names of women who say they have been raped: Many who have have been violated find it profoundly hurtful and embarrassing to be subject to public scrutiny.

Sexual assault is a crime of violence and power. In order to heal, survivors need to assert control over their lives - including control over whether their name should be disclosed.

Some advocates of disclosure argue, compassionately, that the stigma will fade if the names of survivors are printed. But if decades and volumes of coverage have done little to improve the image of rape survivors, what will a few more words do?

NBC News president Michael Gartner was the first mainstream news executive to decide to divulge the name of the woman who says she was raped at the Kennedy estate at Palm Beach. Mr. Gartner said "you try to give viewers as many facts as you can and let them make up their minds." His commitment to informing his viewers is subject to debate, however. Not long ago, when Jon Alpert, an NBC news stringer for 12 years, returned from Iraq with dramatic footage of civilian areas devastated by US bombing, Gartner not only ordered the footage not be aired but ended Alpert's relationship with the network.

Immediately after NBC released the name of the Palm Beach woman pressing charges, the New York Times published a lengthy article which contained not only her name but a host of details about her life, including the fact that she had skipped classes in 9th grade, had driven 70 miles per hour in a 55 zone, and had, while being "escorted" by one man, talked to other men. The gossipy article relied 12 times on unnamed sources. It ended by listing children's books in the room of the woman's young daughter - information gleaned from peeping through a window.

The implication communicated by sensational inquiries into the victim's character is that she isn't worthy of public compassion. Though many news media were quick to dredge up embarrassing details about the alleged victim's life, few publications cited the police records describing her as "distraught," "crying," and "shaking" when reporting the crime, and very reluctant to tell who had assaulted her.

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