As the criminal case against the Duke lacrosse players
falters, a number of journalists are asking if, or when, their newsrooms should
publish or broadcast the name of the woman at the center of the story.

Although
several Web sites have named the woman, to date no mainstream publications have
done so. It has helped some journalists to envision a continuum of
circumstances involving news stories about sexual assault allegations. In doing
so, journalists become familiar with the justifications for naming and not
naming, as well as the possible impact on certain stakeholders in the audience.

The following scenarios include a variety of circumstances that
could lead journalists to different decisions. As with all challenges of ethical
decision-making, the naming question is best addressed by considering three
main principles
:

  • reporting the truth as fully as possible
  • remaining independent
  • minimizing harm

Different circumstances can lead to different decisions,
of course. The following is meant to help you sort through critical
questions when the circumstances suggest one of three possible responses to the
naming question: NO, MAYBE and YES. Such decisions almost always involve the consideration of competing principles, a tension best resolved with thorough reporting and thoughtful exploration of the potential consequences and the particular stakeholders involved.

THE SCENARIO: A private individual (not a public
figure) makes a criminal complaint.

How might naming individual accusers affect other accusers
considering whether to report potential assaults to police?

Action step: Talk to police and prosecutors who work in this
field.

There is stigma and shame associated with being a victim of sexual assault.
What effect does publishing the name of a person seeking criminal justice have
on that sense of stigma and shame?

Action step: Discuss with victims of sexual assault.

How does offering an accuser anonymity impact the reputation
of the accused?

Action step: Scrutinize how you treat the accused.

What can
you do to ensure you don't imply guilt in your stories?

Would publishing the name of the accuser increase the
chances of telling the truth?

Action step: Examine how your newsroom covers sexual
assault.

Look for gaps between the truth you tell and the truth as experienced
by those involved in the events you report. What can you do to narrow those
gaps?

THE SCENARIO: A private individual files a criminal
complaint against a high-profile celebrity, athlete or politician.

What impact should the status of the accused have on the
decision to name the accuser?

How would naming the accuser in a high-profile case impact
the likelihood that other victims/accusers will come forward?

Action step: Research how coverage of high-profile sexual
assault cases affects general public education about sexual assault
.

What
conclusions might your audience reach, based on how your newsroom treats this
particular story?

THE SCENARIO: An accuser is known to engage in
high-risk behavior such as prostitution, drug abuse or exotic dancing.

What impact should a person's behavior have on how he or she is
treated by law enforcement or the media? Do some accusers bear responsibility
for what happens to them?

Action step: Talk to a victim advocate. Ask where
responsibility lies in a sexual assault when both the accuser and the accused
make questionable choices.

THE SCENARIO: A prosecutor declines to charge
because of a lack of evidence, or drops charges.

How common is this? How often do sexual assault cases fail
to result in charges? If you have named a person as a suspect in a rape case
and charges are not filed, what can you do to clear his reputation?

Action step: Research rape and sexual assault crime
statistics. How many cases are reported every year? How many of those result in
charges and convictions?

THE SCENARIO: A jury acquits the accused

What does this say about the claim that a sexual assault
took place? If you name the accuser at this point, what impact will that have
on other people considering reporting a sexual assault? How do journalists
fulfill their responsibility to tell the audience the accused was found to be
not guilty of a crime?

Action step: Review the stories you have already published.
Where did they run? Can you ensure the stories reporting the acquittal get
similar treatment?

THE SCENARIO: Prosecutor drops charges or refuses to
file charges and publicly states that the accuser's story is shaky and
unreliable.

What evidence does the prosecutor offer for his charge that
the accuser is not reliable?

Action step: Can you reach the accuser and solicit
a response?

THE SCENARIO: Prosecutor drops sexual assault
charges, but continues to press charges on other assault charges.

What changed about the evidence in the case that caused the
prosecutor to drop the sexual assault charges? Does the accuser support the
prosecutor's decision?

Action step: Discuss how often you will mention the old
charges in future stories.

THE SCENARIO: Prosecutor drops sexual assault
charges and charges the accuser with filing a false police report.

How do you tell the truth as it is unfolding? What have you
reported in the past that needs to be clarified?

Action step: Convey your policies about naming sexual
assault victims and explain why the circumstances have changed in this case.

THE SCENARIO: An accuser agrees to be named in order
to better tell his or her story.

How can you include a response from the accused? What can
you do to verify the parts of the accuser's story that can be verified? (For
instance, if the accuser says she was waiting tables at a restaurant when she
met the accused, can you verify that she was working that night?)

Action steps: Talk to someone who knows the accuser to
determine if he or she is making an informed decision. Discuss how to tell your
audience why you are naming this particular accuser.

THE SCENARIO: Reporters surface strong, verifiable
evidence that an accuser is not telling the truth.

Is the reporting based on anonymous sources? Are there
documents or other ways that you can convey the accuracy of the reporting?

Action steps: Get feedback, even off the record, from investigators
who know this case. Give the accuser a chance to respond. Talk to rape crisis
counselors about what the newsroom can do to encourage people who really are
victims of sex crimes to report them to police.

Stories about sexual assault are lightning rods in our communities. They evoke strong reactions. The public has a significant stake in how police and prosecutors respond to allegations of sexual assault. And the public needs to know what families, schools and other institutions are doing to prevent violence, protect the vulnerable and educate everyone. As journalists, we have a role to play. We can inform and hold accountable. We can tell the stories of victims, as well as those of the accused. Too often, when we cover sexual assault as a news story, we distort the bigger truth.

Several years ago, we convened a seminar to discuss new approaches to reporting on rape. At the time, one participant, a city editor, suggested we change the starting point of our coverage. In addition to reporting the events that garner public attention, we must also see the phenomenon of sexual assault as an issue that goes beyond victims and assailants, prosecution and defense.

After that meeting we drafted an evolving standard for covering sexual assault. Many newsrooms have adopted the entire document or portions of it as a guideline that encourages reporters to seek the truth. The standard affirms the need for accusers to remain anonymous. But it also encourages reporters to ask those who are reporting a sexual assault if they wish to be named. It addresses underage victims, as well as the sensitivity and restraint journalists should show toward the accused.  It’s an evolving standard, one that will change as society changes. If you have suggestions for improving it, please share them here.