I am just going to say this again and you all just go ahead and pile on: News outlets must stop the blanket withholding of the names of sexual assault victims (unless they are minors who are protected anyway). The news business must treat every sexual assault like the crime that it is – just like every other crime – and make decisions about information on an individual case basis.
I say this for a lot of reasons that I will explain in a moment, but the latest is this one. Rolling Stone embarrassed itself and the whole journalism profession for hanging a sensational story of fraternity gang rape at University of Virginia on a source it now doesn’t trust, and probably never should have.
Had Rolling Stone treated this astounding allegation of a horrific and terrifying incident of gang rape like a crime, instead of swaddling it in the misplaced bubble wrap accorded sexual assault victims, I contend this letter to readers would likely never have been written. Those pros at Rolling Stone would have just done their professional thing – call the victim, call the cops, call the suspects, call the attorneys, call the forensic people, yada, yada, and print all the sordid sides of the tale.
“In the face of new information,” Rolling Stone told readers, “there now appear to be discrepancies in [the victim’s] Jackie’s account, and we have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced. We were trying to be sensitive to the unfair shame and humiliation many women feel after a sexual assault and now regret the decision to not contact the alleged assaulters to get their account.”
There it is. The stigma. The patina of shame. Sex is a dirty word. But, I say assault is as dirty a word. Slaying is a dirty word. Brutal beating are alliteratively awful words. All crimes. All repugnant, but only those crimes with a sexual connotation receive special treatment in the media.
Let’s get sexual assault out of the closet and shine some sunlight on the damage it does – like a knife wound, or a beating. It would be good for the media, good for society and might even bleach that stigma stain.
The National Alliance to End Sexual Assault disagrees with me. “We should not advance social change on the backs of unwilling and traumatized victims, who have so recently been used for others’ ends,” the group writes on its website.
But I just can’t differentiate the “unwilling and traumatized victims” of, say, gun violence or even of domestic violence – all of these victims “have so recently been used for others’ ends” and we name them, and we don’t give their crimes some darkly weird special status.
I am not opposed to withholding names of witnesses, or details of a crime where such withholding is to the public good and helps solve the crime. If a victim needs to be protected because he is a witness and could come to harm if he is identified, so be it, but make that decision based on the individual case, not the classification of its sexual nature.
We in the media are truth-seekers. I believe Rolling Stone’s Sabrina Rubin Erdely sought the truth in this case. But I also believe that Ms. Erdely was a victim of American society’s discomfort with discussing sex.
Sadly, people are fallible. Some are malicious. Some have agendas, or vendettas. Some are merely seeking justice. How are journalists to know what is what? Sunshine is a disinfectant – illuminate a situation enough and the truth will be apparent.
My favorite example is probably the Duke Lacrosse case of 2006. No one came out looking good in that one, but I think that the truth is now well known. Here’s a Vanity Fair article about one of the key players looking back on the case and where it led. The “victim,” who initially went unnamed in the media, was later named as the case began to unravel. The coach resigned, the prosecutor who lied resigned, the players left school in disgrace, later to sue to try to win back their shattered reputations.
Rachel Smolkin writing in American Journalism Review in 2007 looked back at that time, saying, “The media incurred no such penalties. No loss of license, no disciplinary panels, no prolonged public humiliation for the reporters, columnists, cable TV pundits, editorial writers and editors who trumpeted the ‘Duke lacrosse rape case’ and even the ‘gang-rape case’ in front-page headlines, on the nightly news and on strident cable shoutfests.”
The media were too quick to believe the prosecutor and too in love with the story arc of a poor, black mother of two up against the powerful Duke athletics machine and elite, white, rich players.
Smolkin said we media types were schooled: “The lessons of the media’s rush to judgment and their affair with a sensational, simplistic storyline rank among journalism’s most basic tenets: Be fair; stick to the facts; question authorities; don’t assume; pay attention to alternative explanations.”
But clearly, we’re not schooled. We’ve heard only a part of the message, as shown by the collapsing credibility of the young woman featured in the Rolling Stone gang rape story.
Reporters protect at their own peril. Treat sexual assault like any other crime.