Media and Rape

THERE is one very good reason for the news media to withhold the names of women who say they have been raped: Many who have have been violated find it profoundly hurtful and embarrassing to be subject to public scrutiny. Sexual assault is a crime of violence and power. In order to heal, survivors need to assert control over their lives - including control over whether their name should be disclosed.

Some advocates of disclosure argue, compassionately, that the stigma will fade if the names of survivors are printed. But if decades and volumes of coverage have done little to improve the image of rape survivors, what will a few more words do?

NBC News president Michael Gartner was the first mainstream news executive to decide to divulge the name of the woman who says she was raped at the Kennedy estate at Palm Beach. Mr. Gartner said ``you try to give viewers as many facts as you can and let them make up their minds.'' His commitment to informing his viewers is subject to debate, however. Not long ago, when Jon Alpert, an NBC news stringer for 12 years, returned from Iraq with dramatic footage of civilian areas devastated by US bombing, Gart ner not only ordered the footage not be aired but ended Alpert's relationship with the network.

Immediately after NBC released the name of the Palm Beach woman pressing charges, the New York Times published a lengthy article which contained not only her name but a host of details about her life, including the fact that she had skipped classes in 9th grade, had driven 70 miles per hour in a 55 zone, and had, while being ``escorted'' by one man, talked to other men. The gossipy article relied 12 times on unnamed sources. It ended by listing children's books in the room of the woman's young daughter - information gleaned from peeping through a window.

The implication communicated by sensational inquiries into the victim's character is that she isn't worthy of public compassion. Though many news media were quick to dredge up embarrassing details about the alleged victim's life, few publications cited the police records describing her as ``distraught,'' ``crying,'' and ``shaking'' when reporting the crime, and very reluctant to tell who had assaulted her.

THOSE media that have found space to probe the woman's private life have not found the space to cover the issue of sexual assault. Where was the coverage of the April 9 Senate Judiciary hearings on the Violence Against Women Act, which showed that violence against women is increasing at twice the rate of violence against men? Or the financial constraints that threaten to close rape crisis centers across the country?

In covering the Central Park jogger rape the media behaved very differently. Without using the name of the investment banker who was assaulted by a group of African-American youths, the press generated public sympathy for the victim. Unlike the Palm Beach woman, few in the mainstream questioned her credibility. One wonders to what extent the difference lay in the race and class of the accused and accusers.

It's not that the Palm Beach woman is as worthy of public concern as any other woman. That much is obvious. The point is that by portraying a victim as deserving or undeserving the media focuses on who she is - what she was wearing, drinking, her age, marital status, and name - instead of on what the accused did or didn't do. Rape as a crime is too often measured in the media in terms of the character of the victims, rather than the action of the perpetrators.

Hundreds of thousands of sexual assaults are committed each year. By focusing only on individual women and lurid details in celebrated cases, the press can miss a bigger story. The public does have a right to know. It is entitled to know, for example, that over 80 percent of sexual assaults are by acquaintances, and that survivors are often ill-treated by the police and courts.

By pointing to the absence of a name or a face as the shortcoming in coverage of rape, the media engages in victim-blaming. What is needed to end the stigma associated with sexual assault is reporting that exposes the myths and institutions - including some media outlets - that support a rape culture.

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