Rape and anonymity: a fateful pairing

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The Rolling Stone’s indefensible University of Virginia gang-rape story felt like a punch in the gut to anyone feeling hopeful about progress against sexual assault. But hopeful I remain. This fight is (finally) too vigorous to be stopped by flawed journalism.

News and social-media coverage over recent weeks, from the serial rape allegations against Bill Cosby to reports of sexual assault in the military and on campuses across the nation, would indicate that rape is at last being recognized — as an unacceptable reality that we have accepted for far too long. A lot of people seem to have decided no longer to acquiesce in the notion that rape and silence go hand in hand.

This doesn’t mean that there aren’t plenty of folks poised to seize on any sign that a rape claim might be false. Rolling Stone gave these folks a huge assist: A spectacular gang-rape story, almost entirely free of attribution, quickly collapsing under its own weight.

Yet this problematic journalistic practice is nothing new; anonymity has been central to rape coverage for decades. (I first wrote about this in 1989. ) The common editorial practice of shielding rape victims by not naming them – unlike the journalistic commitment to naming names in all other crimes involving adults – is a particular slice of silence that I believe has consistently undermined society’s attempts to deal effectively with rape.

How do you size up a problem that’s largely hidden? There is plenty of talk about rape, but little of it is anchored by fact. As Vice President Biden said last January, in releasing the White House Report on sexual assault on campus, “The first step in solving a problem is to name it and know the extent of it.”

We know (vaguely) that the problem is huge. Looking at campuses only, the most widely agreed upon figure is that one in five U.S. college women will be raped during her college years. It’s hard to be sure because, as criminal justice experts agree, sexual assault is one of the nation’s most underreported crimes. The most reliable estimates indicate that some 15 percent of college students who have been raped report the crime. See more information here.

Without data and transparency, the issue has had a hard time gaining footing against administrators’ desire to keep rape statistics quiet. (The Center for Public Integrity has done powerful work on this topic. ) When the crime is not reported, and no one is named, how do you get the data?

One of many reasons that rape victims (or more accurately those who bring charges of rape) do not report it is that those who do are often subjected not only to disbelief, but also to humiliation, shame, and worse. This is abundantly clear in the military’s abysmal record on sexual assault. A recent Pentagon study said that nearly two-thirds of those who did report encountered retaliation of some sort. As a recent New York Times editorial noted, “That is the same as the previous year, despite a new law making retaliation a punishable offense.”

No surprise then, that for so many years, newspaper editors have agreed to “protect” rape victims by refusing to name them. So why hasn’t this helped correct the underreporting and reduce the retaliation? Maybe because the anonymity, rather than being part of an effective solution to an unacceptable reality, contributes to its prolongation. In other words, it does more harm than good.

You don’t have to believe that there are many women bringing false charges of rape (I don’t) to understand that a fundamental unfairness lies waiting to be exploited when one person is named and another is not, particularly in a crime as inevitably private as rape.

And exploited, it regularly is, as we see again and again — vividly in the case of those bringing allegations against Cosby, and in the appalling New York Times magazine story on sexual assault in the military People react angrily to the woman who “takes down” a beloved old comedian, a talented airman, a great football player – or just a cool frat guy.

If anonymity’s silencing keeps the crime’s dimensions hidden, and its unfairness feeds the fires of those disinclined to hear victims’ truths, anonymity has yet another worrisome trait: It prevents the public from fully engaging with the problem. As journalists well know (but choose distressingly often to ignore) nothing affects public opinion like real stories with real faces and names attached. Attribution brings accountability, a climate within which both empathy and credibility flourish.

Young women today seem to understand all this better than journalists do. Harvard alumna Rory Gerberg is a founder of a coalition of students to address the university’s sexual assault policy. Her view is emblematic: “Our task is to give voice to the daily forms of violence we too often accept as inevitable. This is precisely why student activism is so important. Since I’ve become a campus advocate numerous students have approached me with their stories.”

When real people are credibly seen as having experienced something that we’d rather not acknowledge: That is when we believe at last in a problem’s existence. Thus it was with Anita Hill and sexual harassment. Thus it may well be with Janay Rice and domestic violence (whatever her disinclination to embrace the issue, there is surely no anonymity in that video.)

So, is this that sort of moment for sexual assault? You might say that the past weeks’ stories are as likely to be just another turn of the news cycle as they are to be a tipping point. But I’d say that legacy media are no longer the primary determinant of whether the issue moves forward. Women are now making their voices heard in a way they haven’t been able to before, from Cosby’s alleged victims to college women speaking out on campuses across the country.

Latoya Peterson, in a recent New York Times book review, quoted feminist scholar Donna Haraway regarding “the power to survive… on the basis of seizing the tools to mark the world that marked them as other.” Many women are experiencing that power. While the use of social media has its downsides, for sure, this seems unlikely to stop them. For one thing, social media are aiding them not only by giving them a platform, but also by winning them wide support. This includes support from men who have previously acquiesced in the silence, a huge factor in the Cosby story, which David Carr sums up here.

Sen. Claire McCaskill may have a misplaced confidence in the military’s ability to deal with sexual assault, but this she gets exactly right: “What you’re seeing with Cosby and college campuses and the military is that victims are gaining strength by seeing the courage of other victims,” she said. “I have seen this incredible increase in the number of people who have come out and are saying, ‘I want people to know that this happened to me.’ ”

The longstanding nudge (by journalists and others) toward anonymity that women who have been raped have been experiencing has no doubt comforted some, at least for a period. But, increasingly, the underside of this approach even for the individual is acknowledged. Painful as the truth can be, absorbing the notion that you can’t tell it can be worse. As Times columnist Charles Blow wrote of having buried his own experience as a child with sexual assault: “I had done what the world signaled I must: hidden the thorn in my flesh.” What he discovered, he said, was that “concealment makes the soul a swamp. Confession is how you drain it.”

Journalists are avidly tearing apart the Rolling Stone for its appalling dereliction of duty, and rightfully so. But all who have shared in this idea of anonymity as a protection of rape victims have played a role in bringing us to this moment. We have been participants in the notion that rape and silence go hand in hand. It’s a notion outmoded at last, and those who pursue it become more and more irrelevant. Read more

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Is the Obama administration really the ‘most transparent’ ever?

In a live “Hangout” video chat on Google+ last week, President Obama answered a critic’s question about his administration’s secrecy over drone killings and Benghazi with this claim:

This is the most transparent administration in history, and I can document how that is the case — everything from every visitor who comes into the White House is now part of the public record. That is something we changed. Every law that we pass, every rule that we implement we put online for everyone to see.

Read more

Obama administration’s FOIA record worse than Bush’s

Bloomberg | The New York Times
Bloomberg News found that 19 of 20 federal agencies did not comply within 20 days to a request for travel expenses made under the Freedom of Information Act. Jim Snyder and Danielle Ivory report:

“When it comes to implementation of Obama’s wonderful transparency policy goals, especially FOIA policy in particular, there has been far more ‘talk the talk’ rather than ‘walk the walk,’ ” said Daniel Metcalfe, director of the Department of Justice’s office monitoring the government’s compliance with FOIA requests from 1981 to 2007.

Analysis done by the Scripps Howard Foundation reveals that President Obama’s administration granted a smaller percentage of open records requests in its first two years in office than George W. Bush’s administration granted in its final three years. Read more

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New adds stream of user tips for crowd ranking

News as a public process, rather than the polished output of a magic journalism box, is one of the big ideas in journalism innovation. But what exactly does that look like?

The new homepage of has a stream of incoming tips and suggested stories.

The people at are taking a stab at answering that question in a redesign launching Thursday afternoon. The site’s main feature remains the same — a center column aggregating the world’s latest breaking news stories, as picked by editors. But a new column to the right has a raw feed of unverified story leads the audience can help to sort through.

This acts as a “real-time inbox of tips,” which come through the website from users or through Twitter from about 160 news organizations who signed up to submit tips by including #breaking or #breakingnews hashtags. Site visitors can upvote the most urgent items to call them to an editor’s attention. The goal is speed: to identify important news with the community’s help faster than a few editors could on their own.

“We’ve hired a 24/7 team of editors who immerse themselves in this with three screens and are tracking every bit of news they can find … but at some point we’re going to reach a natural upper limit,” Breaking News director Cory Bergman told me. “We’re only going to see an increase of eyewitness reports posted to social media — we know this is going to balloon over the next few years, and we really need the crowd’s help in being able to identify it.”

News publishers should take notice not only of the ideas at work here, but also the immediate opportunities to have Breaking News drive visitors to their stories. When the organization picks up a story, it sends direct links out on its website and mobile apps, and to about 3.4 million Twitter followers, 84,000 Facebook fans and to other channels, like the front page of

Disclosure: Bergman is on Poynter’s National Advisory Board. Read more


New website builds dossiers on journalists, hopes transparency will lead to trust

Ira Stoll is 38. He has a Facebook page and a Twitter account. His phone number is (718) 499-2199 and his email is He went to college at Harvard, has worked at the Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal and New York Sun, and he considers Seth Lipsky a personal friend.

I know all this from Stoll’s profile page on, a new site he just launched to make it easier for the public “to find out about the individual human beings who produce the news — human beings with opinions, relationships, history, and agendas.”

The site consists of journalist profile pages which, like Wikipedia, allow anyone to add information and, like Amazon, enable ratings and reviews. They also collect articles written about the journalist’s work.

What’s the point? Stoll, who founded, cites polls showing record-high public distrust of the media, and academic research finding roughly half of newspaper stories contain errors. He hopes will improve the accuracy, quality, and transparency of journalism. It “should help readers, viewers, and listeners put what they are reading in better context, and it may even prompt some improvements by the journalists.”

Those quotes are from the website’s “about” page. Stoll explained his goals further in an email to Poynter:

What I hope it will do: For readers, give them a place to go for background about a journalist to help them understand where the journalist is coming from. For sources, give them a neutral territory to go to to complain about an inaccurate story or irresponsible journalist or to praise an accurate story or exemplary journalist. For journalists, a place to receive and respond to reader and source feedback and to share information to make themselves and their colleagues less mysterious, more transparent, and more accessible.

A journalist profile on can include a photo, age, contact information, education, political affiliation, charities, work history, sources and friends.

The idea certainly has potential, as you can see from a fairly well-developed profile of Politico’s Mike Allen. As with any contribution-driven site, its success will depend on the volume and reliability of participation. Accuracy could be a concern if people purposely or mistakenly add false information. Journalists may want to keep an eye on their own profiles for that reason.

The site may also test a new principle of online journalism, that transparency is the new objectivity. The notion is that journalists ought to stop pretending to be thoughtless, emotionless repeaters of attributed information, and instead act as real people who explain where they are coming from.

This new site tries to impose transparency on individual journalists (can you still call it transparency if it’s imposed from the outside?), and hopes that public trust in them will follow.

Surely, some vocal partisans will wield this information to allege liberal or conservative bias among individual journalists. But if journalists look past that, perhaps they can connect with a larger though quieter group of regular people who just want to get the news, and know a little more about where it’s coming from.

Related: Atlantic writer says stop forcing journalists to conceal their views || Earlier: Is it really a big deal if journalists share personal opinions? || How accessible do journalists really want to be? Read more


Is it really a big deal if journalists share personal opinions?

News about “World of Opera” host Lisa Simeone becoming an Occupy Wall Street spokesperson has renewed attention to questions that journalists have grappled with for years. Should journalists’ personal lives have any bearing on their work as journalists? And if you’re a journalist, should you give up certain rights?

It used to be that journalists wouldn’t post political signs in their front lawns. In an age where people are so accessible online, is it OK for journalists to post personal information and opinions? If they “like” one politician on Facebook, should they like them all?

These are important questions to ask, especially given that it’s gotten easier for the public to catch a glimpse of journalists’ work and lives. Some have said that “transparency is the new objectivity.” The challenge, of course, is figuring out just how transparent you want to be and how your audience will respond.

During a live chat, Jack Shafer shared his opinion on this topic and answered several questions from participants. You can replay the chat here:

<a href=”″ mce_href=”″ >Is it really a big deal if journalists share personal information, opinions?</a> Read more

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Guardian publishes upcoming story budgets, invites reader feedback
The Guardian will publish “a carefully-selected portion” of its internal lists of upcoming story topics, inviting readers to get in touch with reporters or editors if they have something to contribute. The goal is to treat news as an open, interactive process, instead of a finished product concealed until completion. National News Editor Dan Roberts explains:

“What if readers were able to help newsdesks work out which stories were worth investing precious reporting resources in? What if all those experts who delight in telling us what’s wrong with our stories after they’ve been published could be enlisted into giving us more clues beforehand? What if the process of working out what to investigate actually becomes part of the news itself?”

“Obviously, we’re not planning to list all our exclusives or embargoed content and we’ll also have to be careful not to say anything legally sensitive or unsubstantiated. Nonetheless, we think there are lots of routine things that we list every day which might provoke interesting responses from readers.”

Earlier: New Guardian digital focus to center on ‘open journalism on the Web’ Read more


The Atlantic Wire opens editorial discussions to the public
The Atlantic Wire is experimenting with letting the public observe and participate in its story pitching and editing processes by conducting them in an open comment thread. “As with many web news operations, The Atlantic Wire is mostly edited via terse messages in a group chat room… We had a thought: Why not move that out into the open and let anyone who wants to take part?” editor Gabriel Snyder wrote. The “Open Wire” experiment is designed to increase transparency about the editorial process. || UPDATE: Snyder published a piece about what he’s learned from this experiment. Read more


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