Rethinking Rape Coverage

Article excerpt

Should anonymity be absolute?

Thursday evening, Aug. 1, news editors across the country faced the same question: Name the girls or don't name the girls?

The girls were two teenagers from Lancaster, Calif. They had been abducted earlier that day. One was 16, one was 17. Both had been parked with their boyfriends at a remote "lovers lane" when they were stolen away by a man with a gun.

The girls' pictures and their plight were the drama of the day on television. Americans held vigil with the families - worrying, waiting, wondering how these girls would survive, if they could survive. The story was scripted for TV, particularly for the 24-hour news channels.

The ordeal erupted in the middle of the night on the West Coast, just in time for the morning news programs in New York. It climaxed at midday with a shoot-out. By the time the evening news rolled around, there were enough details to craft a dramatic story with a satisfying resolution. The girls were alive. The bad guy was dead. The new system, the Amber Alert, had worked.

Then someone said rape.

Specifically, Kern County (Calif.) Sheriff Carl Sparks said the kidnapper had raped both girls. He said it on CNN's Larry King Live. Many reporters covering the case had already heard the girls had been raped and were back in their newsrooms grappling to define their options.

Now the choices were down to two: Name them as they had been doing all day long on television and on Internet Web sites, or stop naming them.

When the papers hit the doorsteps Friday morning, there was not a clear consensus.

Among those who withdrew the girls' identities: The Los Angeles Times, The Dallas Morning News and The Washington Post. Papers that named the girls and reported the rapes: The Boston Globe and Newsday.

In the days of national introspection that followed, it was dear that many journalists writing about media policies on rape victims didn't know the history of this issue. "Why don't we name rape victims?" one reporter asked me. She was not just looking for a good quote. She really wanted to know. Withholding the names of rape victims was a well-established policy she had inherited with her local stylebook. She had a vague understanding of the reasoning behind the policy. She also had a lot of questions that she had never asked anyone in her newsroom.

Fourteen years ago, a New York Times reporter asked Geneva Overholser, then editor of The Des Moines Register, that same question: Why don't we name rape victims? Her answer set into motion a string of events that changed the media and society's understanding of the crime. It was time then to talk about rape. It is time again.

The editors at work Aug. 1 knew instinctively their choices were artificial and sensed that their tools for making this decision were outdated. The policies of not naming rape victims were written before the Internet, before the 24-hour news channels, before what we call "convergence."

Much has changed in the news business since those policies were drafted in the late 1970s. Much has changed in society's attitude about rape. We talk about sex more openly, in both healthy and unhealthy ways. Think Bob Dole and Viagra. Think radio shock jocks Opie and Andrew sponsoring their sex stunt in St. Patrick's Cathedral. The generation coming of age today has been reared on reality and talk television. No moment is too private, no event too personal.

Indeed, surveys show rape survivors under 30 have a markedly different response to the crime, says Lucy Berliner, director of the Sexual Assault Center at Seattle's Harborview Medical Center. Women under 30 are much more likely to tell people about an assault, report the crime, get counseling and seek medical treatment, Berliner discovered in a comprehensive study she published last year. All of those actions are considered helpful in dealing with the aftermath of rape. …