My Poynter colleagues and I have spent a good deal of time this past week wrestling with one of journalism’s more persistent and perplexing ethical issues. How should the news media report stories on rape, and particularly what protection should be given to the victims of rape?
Our discussions mirrored what was taking place in many newsrooms around the country as editors and producers grappled with how to handle the case out of Lancaster, Calif.
Two teenage girls, ages 16 and 17, were abducted at gunpoint by a fugitive ex-con. He raped both girls, then threatened to kill them. But sheriff’s deputies closed in on the kidnapper’s car, shot him to death, and rescued the two girls.
The story was covered intensely, not only in California, but also by news organizations across the country. It was another in a series of high-profile kidnappings of children or teens.
In this case the girls’ names and pictures were widely and extensively used as part of the kidnapping story and subsequent rescue coverage. But once the sheriff revealed that the girls had been raped, journalists faced a significant ethical challenge.
Most news organizations do not report the names of sexual assault victims unless the victims are willing to be publicly identified. But in this case (which is not that unusual, as similar situations have occurred in many states in the last decade), the victims’ identities were already public.
Some news organizations pulled back on using the names and photos. Others continued to identify the girls, saying it was too late to protect their identities since they were already “out there.”
I don’t buy that latter argument. The decision-making equation changed when the rape element was added. The journalistic purposes for identifying the girls — the kidnapping, the search, and the subsequent rescue — were no longer the same. And the ethical issues were different. There was no longer a journalistic imperative to identify the girls, nor do I believe there was a significant public need to know their identities.
Journalists can’t change the stories they’ve written and already presented to the public. But journalists can stop shining the spotlight on these very vulnerable victims.
The equation changed again when the two girls agreed to be identified in interviews with several news media organizations. That development, I suggest, required journalists to make a new ethical decision based on the new facts in this particular case.
There is, to be sure, nothing simple about reporting on rape and rape victims.
I join the voices of those who advocate ways to improve our reporting on rape, including finding ways to address the real or perceived stigma that is attached to the victims of sexual assault. I support the approach that gives victims the choice of being identified, though I worry when that choice is presented to teenagers or to any victim whose considerable vulnerability may impede a reasoned decision that weighs all the consequences of the choice.
In the case of the two girls in California, I would not identify them just because they said it was OK. I would want to know what crisis counseling they received before agreeing to go public. I would want to know how much professional help they’d received to deal with their trauma. I would want to know what guidance they’d received in making such a profound decision about agreeing to attach their name to the words, “rape victim.” I hope that these two girls made their decisions to go public with all of that support. But, since I don’t know the answers to my concerns, you won’t find their names in this column.
I believe we have a professional obligation to assess, the best we can, the vulnerability of individuals as we write stories about the most painful and difficult elements of their lives.
As journalists, we generally write a story and move on. Those we write about will be forever connected to that story. We have a duty to show great care and concern.
As I wrestled with all of this, I was drawn to the thinking of journalist and author Helen Benedict. I consider her 1992 book Virgin or Vamp: How the Press Covers Sex Crimes, to be one of the most thoughtful treatments of this issue.
Benedict’s book provides important historical context, delving into matters of gender, race, culture, and language. She also identifies a number of “rape myths” that can warp the public debate and skew the decisions of journalists. And Benedict examines those engrained newsroom cultures, belief systems and professional practices that determine what editors and reporters do on stories about rape. She also identified eight factors “that lead the public, and the press, to blame the victim for the rape and to push her into the role of ‘vamp.’”
Importantly, Benedict addresses whether rape is about sex or about violence. “Rape is best characterized as torture that uses sex as a weapon. Like a torturer, the rapist uses sexual acts to dominate, humiliate, and terrorize the victim,” Benedict writes.
“To deny the role of sexual humiliation in rape is to deny victims the horror of what they have been through. As long as people have any sense of privacy about sexual acts and the human body, rape will, therefore, carry a stigma, not necessarily a stigma that blames the victim for what happened to her, but a stigma that links her name irrevocably with an act of intimate humiliation.”
“To name a rape victim is to guarantee that whenever somebody hears her name, that somebody will picture her in the act of being sexually tortured. To expose a rape victim to this without her consent is nothing short of punitive.”
I’m wondering what thoughts Helen Benedict might have on this topic a decade after she wrote her book. Has society changed in ways that might alter how the news media covers rape and rape victims? Has the evolving nature of the news media itself — including the scope and the reach of the Internet — transformed the values and the practices in particular ways, good or bad? Has the willingness of some rape victims to go public made a difference and, if so, in what ways?
I’m struck by how complex this issue is. I’m struck by how much I don’t know.
I need to get much smarter on this significant topic. I need to read the research of psychologists and sociologists and criminologists who have purposefully studied sexual assault and its impact on victims. I need to listen to rape crisis counselors and law enforcement officers who deal with this issue in real time. And I certainly need to hear the voices of the women and men who are the victims of sexual assault.
I need to learn more because there will be more stories about rape and rape victims that will require sound ethical decision making.