November 8, 2011

Until today, media covering allegations of sexual harassment leveled against Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain have universally withheld the identities of the women, who did not voluntarily come forward.

Then today, The Daily, Rupert Murdoch’s iPad publication, revealed the identity of one woman, in a flattering article that gives credibility to her claims.

That prompted Business Insider and the Daily Caller to follow suit. Shortly after that, NPR confirmed with Karen Kraushaar that she is “woman A,” but she initially declined to say anything more.

Kraushaar spoke with The New York Times Tuesday evening.

She said she did not know whether or how she might tell more of her story but said that she had been warming “to the idea of a joint press conference where all of the women would be together with our attorneys and all of this evidence would consider together.”

Since then, attorneys for the women have been in touch and plans for a joint appearance are progressing.

It’s apparent that Kraushaar’s name was widely known by journalists, but not reported.

This lock-step withholding, then revealing, of information is evidence of a lack of leadership among the ranks of leading news organizations.

There isn’t a journalistic reason to conceal the names of these women. Journalists are not bound by non-disclosure agreements that often accompany legal settlements. These women are victims of sexual harassment, not sexual assault. There is no generally accepted school of thought that guides journalists to protect individual privacy in cases like this.

When it comes to rape, which is a felony, there is well-documented research that indicates victims would be even less likely to report attacks to police, if they knew their names would be published. That’s why most newsrooms have policies that discourage publishing the names of rape victims. Sexual harassment is not rape, though certainly it may be humiliating and embarrassing to be the victim of sexual harassment.

Sharon Bialek, a Chicago-area woman, addresses a news conference at the Friars Club, Monday, Nov. 7, 2011, in New York. Bialek accused Republican presidential contender Herman Cain of making an unwanted sexual advance against her in 1997. She says she wants to provide “a face and a voice” to support other accusers who have so far remained anonymous. (Richard Drew/AP)

The newsrooms that originally broke the story, Politico and The New York Times, may have promised the women anonymity in exchange for their interviews. That makes sense.

But other newsrooms, particularly those with the capacity to discover the names of the women, acted in inexplicable unison until today. And they continue even now, reporting only the name that was originally revealed by The Daily, instead of divulging the names of all the women involved.

The Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone pointed out in his column last week that many news organizations have staked out the house of one woman who received a settlement. And one TV executive told Calderone, “There’s no journalistic reason not to name them … I think it comes down to a very simple equation: If you name them, the likelihood of your news organization interviewing them probably goes down to zero.”

Many newsrooms may share the hope that if they preserve the women’s anonymity, then maybe those women will grant a personal interview.

In other words, those newsrooms are gambling on the remote chance of getting an exclusive, and sacrificing their duty to give their audience all the relevant information.

The uniformity among news organizations on this particular decision is baffling, given the increasing competition to deliver news to the consumer.

Critics will likely presume a journalism cabal, making decisions together in some back room. It’s not that. Instead, it’s a lack of confidence and leadership in newsrooms. It’s an inability to employ a process that puts the needs of the audience before the needs of the newsroom. It’s the tendency to spend too much time comparing oneself to the competition, and not enough time asking if the work is serving the truth.

I talked about when and why to name accusers in a live chat with Reuters’ Jack Shafer. You can replay the chat here:

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Kelly McBride is a writer, teacher and one of the country’s leading voices when it comes to media ethics. She has been on the faculty…
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