Unraveling Rape Coverage
Every journalism debate I've seen on the Kobe Bryant case throws a lot of disparate subjects into one troubling pot. Let's separate out a few strands:
- Begin with a point most could agree on: Rape is a crime shrouded in cruel myths. This piece in The Washington Post does a fine job of setting them forth.
- The myths have long resulted in terrible injustices for women who have already suffered an unspeakable crime. No wonder the conversation is full of emotion.
- Among the many questions addressed in discussions about rape, few are specifically journalistic. Most are broader, more sociological questions.
- The latter questions -– really those addressing our response as human beings to this crime -- tend to spawn deep divisions, with strongly felt opinions on both sides, and little "proof" to support either. I'm thinking of such questions as:
- Whether it's better for the women themselves if they are open or secretive about rape (see this column in The Denver Post for an example of this discussion)
- Whether women report rapes more frequently because they are not named in conventional media (a point mentioned in this column by Poynter's Kelly McBride)
- How best the stigmatization of rape might be broken down
- How would responsible coverage of rape look? As the tabloid Globe has reminded us, no matter how much progress we make in understanding rape, some in the media will happily exploit the worst kinds of ignorance about it to commit dreadful journalism.
- Finally, there is the long-running debate on which so much energy is focused -- whether those who charge others with rape should be named.
As a feminist, I care deeply about the social questions. While I recognize the good intentions of those who seek to protect rape victims, I believe that much of the effort has had contrary results -- and that there is little evidence that it has helped rape victims or furthered societal understanding. But these views of mine -– and the views of others -– on these questions are fundamentally beside the point journalistically.
When it comes to asking whether to use people's names, the journalistic ethic is clear: We name names. We do this for reasons of credibility and fairness. When we make exceptions to this ethic, we must be very careful indeed. To my mind, protecting children is a valid exception. Beyond that, we are on very thin ice. Of all the people who have valid reasons to prefer their names not be in the paper, how can we be wise enough to choose among them?
Looking at the issue this way, it becomes much clearer just how erroneous is the choice we have made NOT to name those who bring the charge of rape. Ours is, thankfully, an open criminal-justice system, and one in which we are to presume innocence until the courts decide otherwise. How is it that journalists can decide before that decision is made that one party deserves our protection and the other does not? In this light, it seems evident that we cannot -- and should not. Yet, because this particular crime comes burdened with years of cruel unfairness, we feel we are being merciful -– and fail to see the further damage we cause by our unfairness in making a choice that isn't appropriate for us to make.
Happily for those of us who believe that openness is the best cure for ignorance, the porous nature of communications today seems about to render this naming issue moot.More happily still, we can then turn all this heat toward the eminently deserving journalistic debate of how we cover rape more fairly and honorably.