Thursday evening, Aug. 1, news editors across the country faced the same question: Name the girls or don’t name the girls?
The girls were two teenagers from Lancaster, Calif. They had been abducted earlier that day. One was 16, one was 17. Both had been parked with their boyfriends at a remote “lovers lane” when they were stolen away by a man with a gun.
The girls’ pictures and their plight were the drama of the day on television. Americans held vigil with the families – worrying, waiting, wondering how these girls would survive, if they could survive. The story was scripted for TV, particularly for the 24-hour news channels.
The ordeal erupted in the middle of the night on the West Coast, just in time for the morning news programs in New York. It climaxed at midday with a shoot-out. By the time the evening news rolled around, there were enough details to craft a dramatic story with a satisfying resolution. The girls were alive. The bad guy was dead. The new system, the Amber Alert, had worked.
Then someone said rape.
Specifically, Kern County (Calif.) Sheriff Carl Sparks said the kidnapper had raped both girls. He said it on CNN’s Larry King Live. Many reporters covering the case had already heard the girls had been raped and were back in their newsrooms grappling to define their options.
Now the choices were down to two: Name them as they had been doing all day long on television and on Internet Web sites, or stop naming them.
When the papers hit the doorsteps Friday morning, there was not a clear consensus.
Among those who withdrew the girls’ identities: The Los Angeles Times, The Dallas Morning News and The Washington Post. Papers that named the girls and reported the rapes: The Boston Globe and Newsday.
In the days of national introspection that followed, it was clear that many journalists writing about media policies on rape victims didn’t know the history of this issue. “Why don’t we name rape victims?” one reporter asked me. She was not just looking for a good quote. She really wanted to know. Withholding the names of rape victims was a well-established policy she had inherited with her local stylebook. She had a vague understanding of the reasoning behind the policy. She also had a lot of questions that she had never asked anyone in her newsroom.
Fourteen years ago, a New York Times reporter asked Geneva Overholser, then editor of The Des Moines Register, that same question: Why don’t we name rape victims? Her answer set into motion a string of events that changed the media and society’s understanding of the crime. It was time then to talk about rape. It is time again.
The editors at work Aug. 1 knew instinctively their choices were artificial and sensed that their tools for making this decision were outdated. The policies of not naming rape victims were written before the Internet, before the 24-hour news channels, before what we call “convergence.”
Much has changed in the news business since those policies were drafted in the late 1970s. Much has changed in society’s attitude about rape. We talk about sex more openly, in both healthy and unhealthy ways. Think Bob Dole and Viagra. Think radio shock jocks Opie and Andrew sponsoring their sex stunt in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The generation coming of age today has been reared on reality and talk television. No moment is too private, no event too personal.
Indeed, surveys show rape survivors under 30 have a markedly different response to the crime, says Lucy Berliner, director of the Sexual Assault Center at Seattle’s Harborview Medical Center. Women under 30 are much more likely to tell people about an assault, report the crime, get counseling and seek medical treatment, Berliner discovered in a comprehensive study she published last year. All of those actions are considered helpful in dealing with the aftermath of rape. It is not hard to find examples of recent news stories where victims agreed to openness in news reports.
Deadline is never a good time to figure out you are missing the tools you need to make a good decision. The editors on duty the night of the California kidnapping had sound journalistic motivations. They wanted to tell the truth as thoroughly as possible. They wanted to minimize any harm to the victims if they could. What they lacked was insight into the changing ideas about rape in today’s society.
It’s time for a new conversation.
A SHORT HISTORY OF RAPE IN THE NEWS
News editors have been asking what they should do about rape for more than a century. The evolution of their answers is intricately tied to our national understanding of things as small as the definition of sex and as big as the dignity of women. This dialogue is weighted down by gender and race. It is propelled by the ever-changing relationships among human subgroups, blacks and whites, men and women, adults and children, rich and poor.
Crimes of murder and other violence were a mainstay of the news business in the early 1900s. Yet sex crimes were ignored with one exception, writes Helen Benedict in her 1992 book on rape: “Virgin or Vamp.” Lynchings were common newsprint fodder. Whites lynched blacks for many reasons other than allegations of rape. But when rape was the charge, the lynching received a lot of press, Benedict writes.
Decades passed before the press would overcome the urge to frame rape as a black-on-white crime. Some critics argue that the press has yet to clear that hurdle; that charges of a black man raping a white woman continue to get more coverage than other rapes.
As the practice of lynchings became less frequent, so did any mention of rape in American newspapers. From the 1930s to the 1950s, stories about rape were rare, despite an increase in the incidence of reported rapes in the years after World War II. The rape stories that did get published continued to focus on black-on-white attacks.
When McCarthyism engulfed the United States in the 1950s, the fear of communism became entangled in the press coverage of rape. Leftists took up the cause of black suspects unfairly prosecuted for rape. Eventually, much of the press embraced the civil rights movement. Yet the focus of rape stories continued to be on interracial rapes, only the coverage now championed unjustly persecuted black men.
Finally, in the 1960s, several serial rapists, including Boston’s Hillside Strangler, forced a change in media coverage. Although race was not as significant in these stories, true understanding continued to be elusive. Victims often were described as “pretty,” or they were denigrated as “spinsters” or “divorcees.” Either way, the victim was culpable for her attack.
“It took the rise of the women’s movement in the early 1970s,” Benedict wrote, “to bring society to an awareness of rape as a crime that mattered not as a violation of male property or of white dominance, but as a violent act that caused human beings harm.”
Along with this new awareness, newspapers began adopting policies of not identifying rape victims. The decisions coincided with the rise of rape crisis centers in many communities throughout the 1970s. There, not only did rape victims find an advocate, but journalists found sources that could tell the truth about the devastation of rape.
THE UNSPEAKABLE WORD
As the 1990s approached, newspapers and television stations rarely questioned the guidelines for concealing rape victims’ identities. With the exception of a handful of newspapers, these guidelines were uniformly adopted by the news media.
The guidelines were justified for these reasons:
• Rape is different from any other crime. Society often blames the victims. Studies show rape victims suffer from the stigma of being “damaged” by the experience.
• Rape victims are less likely to report the crime if they know their names will appear in the newspaper. Rape is already the most underreported crime in the country.
• Because rape victims are treated with such insensitivity by society, they deserve a level of privacy not afforded other crime victims.
Critics of the guidelines say withholding the names of rape victims violates the principles of fairness and balance. The names of those accused of rape are almost always divulged. For the most part, journalists agreed with that criticism, but justified the guidelines because of the harm caused by naming rape victims in a public forum.
These rules held, with little questioning, until a New York Times reporter called Geneva Overholser and asked: Why don’t we name rape victims? At the time, Overholser was simultaneously serving on the editorial board of The Times and as editor of The Des Moines Register. The Times reporter was covering a Supreme Court case involving a Florida newspaper that had published a rape victim’s name. He was looking for a good feminist who was also a good journalist.
The journalist and the feminist in Overholser started asking some tough questions. She didn’t trust the instincts of her male dominated profession. She found that feminists were not of one mind on the issue, either. She wrote a column that appeared in both The Register and The Times. She gave a brief history of the arguments for protecting rape victims from public scrutiny and she opined: “I surely wish it could be otherwise.”
Three weeks later, a reader from a small town outside of Des Moines called Overholser.
Six months after that, The Register published a five-part series on the rape of Nancy Ziegenmeyer. What followed was a media phenomenon, said Jane Shorer, the reporter on the project.
The paper’s switchboard lit up. Rape survivors across the country called in, thanking the paper for giving voice to their agony. Newspapers and television stations everywhere highlighted The Register’s bold articles. Critics said the newspaper perpetuated the stereotype of rape as a crime of black men against white women. Ziegenmeyer is white. The assailant was black. Ziegenmeyer sold the rights to her story. Shorer won the Pulitzer Prize for public service that year.
“Timing is everything,” said Overholser, now a journalism professor for the University of Missouri’s Washington, D.C., campus. “Society was ready to talk about rape.”
In fact, rape had been a hot topic in the news for a while. It was a watershed moment.
The year before The Register’s series, the news columns had been consumed by the Central Park “wilding” attack in which a group of black teenagers raped a white jogger, beating her into a coma.
Then came the William Kennedy Smith case in which several newspapers divulged the name of the woman who accused Smith of rape. Both the Central Park case and the Kennedy Smith case led to a round of self-examination by the press.
Until this past summer, Overholser thought all the watershed moments on rape were in the past. Once again her phone is lighting up. It’s not just the California kidnappings that have the media wondering if the policies are counterproductive. In Oregon, as authorities investigate the kidnapping and slaying of two teenage girls, the press is agonizing about whether to reveal past abuse the girls suffered. At the Omaha World-Herald, the staff faced a similar dilemma this summer when reporting on the kidnapping of the adult daughter of their own columnist, Michael Kelly. After the accused assailant, Jamaal Turner, was arrested, he was charged with rape. Kelly’s daughter, Bridget, conveyed to reporters: It’s OK to say rape. Her father has written several columns on the ordeal.
The events of this summer brought Overholser a deluge of interview requests. After listening to dozens of reporters ask, “Is it time to change the guidelines on naming rape victims?” she said the conversation should change directions. She suggests two broader questions: Has society evolved to the point where rape no longer carries such a powerful stigma? Are we as journalists ready to rethink the need to always name names, particularly in crime coverage?
“I don’t know what progress would look like on this issue of rape and society, and I never thought it would come easily,” Overholser said. “There are very valid reasons for what we do in journalism on this issue. But some of our reasons are self-deluding and paternalistic.”
SEE MY FACE, SAY MY NAME
In every newsroom in this country, there is a rape victim. Statistically, wherever there are women, there are rape victims.
It’s a source of information we in the journalism industry are reluctant to tap because it breaks other taboos. The news is not about us. We are particularly sensitive about violating the privacy of one of our own.
Yet a reservoir of experience and information can be found in our newsrooms. Here is one story:
It was so odd, Nobuko Oyabu says, to see the story about her rape in her own newspaper. The copy described her neighborhood, her apartment where the attack occurred and named her former neighbor, who had been arrested.
Oyabu, a photojournalist, at first welcomed the anonymity. It made sense. In fact, she worried that the description of the victim, “a 28-year-old female,” was too revealing. How many such women were there living in the neighborhood where television news crews did live stand-ups to report her attack?
After a while it bothered her. Many people at The Dispatch, in East Moline, Ill., knew she was the victim. No one covering the story ever asked her any questions. She thinks they wanted to respect her privacy.
Reading the stories of the crime and the court case (her attacker got 20 years), she felt invisible, disembodied. “It was like I was reading someone else’s tragedy,” she says. “I kept thinking, ‘So this is me, huh?’”
Then her counselor asked her to make a T-shirt for a rape awareness event, called The Clothesline. Rape survivors decorate T-shirts to tell their stories. The shirts are hung from a clothesline to demonstrate the frequency of the crime. Seeing dozens of empty shirts hanging limp made Oyabu sick. Instead of empowering her, it made her weak, just like when she read the stories in the newspaper. “I saw nothing but shame,” she says. “I said, ‘No. No. No. This is not for me.’”
Oyabu, now 31, turned to her craft, photography, and her profession, journalism, for answers.
She wanted to put the bodies back into the empty T-shirts.
Through her church she met another rape survivor, Dee Ann Miller, the first rape victim Oyabu photographed. Miller was raped by a fellow missionary in Africa. Her memoir, How Little We Knew: Collusion and Confusion with Sexual Misconduct, is a popular book among survivors.
Through Miller, Oyabu found other survivors to photograph. She posted the black-and-white images, along with short narratives, on a Web site. Oyabu has more than 60 faces, 60 survivors, 60 names. Forty more people are on her waiting list. Six months after she was raped, Oyabu moved to Omaha to work at the World-Herald. She recently quit that job to take the collection on tour. (To see it, go to http://nobukoonline.com/index.html.) The details are simple and straightforward.
A somber Sharon Franck, 24, of New York looks into Oyabu’s lens. “Violently raped three times at age 17 by her high school boyfriend.”
Jayme Cherry, 37, of Dallas, smiles faintly. “Sexually abused at the age of 12 by her teacher and as an adult, sexually molested by her physician when she went to him to seek help for issues related to her emotional and physical health.”
The women and men Oyabu has photographed often say the experience has been healing, even powerful. The interaction is rich and layered, Oyabu says. It is between photographer and subject but also between two rape survivors.
“When I took their pictures, it gave them a sense of being somebody.”
BETWEEN STIGMA AND SHAME
My colleagues here at the The Poynter Institute always ask these questions when advising journalists who think they are stuck in an ethical dilemma: What do we know? What do we need to know? They are good question for any journalist considering naming a rape victim. What do we know? We know that rape still carries a stigma, although it might not be the same as it was 30 years ago.
Seventy percent of victims worry they will be blamed, says Dean Kilpatrick, director of the National Violence Against Women Prevention Research Center at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. More than half of the victims he has surveyed say they worry more about their names becoming public than they do about getting a sexually transmitted disease.
Even if the stigma is different, the shame remains. “What’s the difference between stigma and shame? It’s huge,” said Berliner, the Seattle rape researcher. “You don’t want people to imagine you in that circumstance. It’s so private. It’s so humiliating.”
We know that rape is pervasive, and most of the assaults happen to children.
Surveys at many centers, including Harborview and the Medical University of South Carolina, show that as many as one-third of all women claim some form of sexual assault. It’s a number many people find hard to believe. Most of those attacks happened when the victim was a child.
In Kilpatrick’s most recent study, 29 percent of the rapes happened before age 11, and another 32 percent from ages 12 to 18.
Almost all the victims who experience a repeat attack were first violated as children.
Rape still is the most underreported crime in America. Only 16 percent of all rapes are reported to police.
Rape victims suffer from a wide range of emotional and physical aftereffects. Although newspapers and television stations are more likely to report about the effect of rape than in the past, Berliner says the news distorts the recovery process, often making rape seem like a tragedy for which there is no recovery.
“There’s not much motivation for a victim to portray her resilience, if she wants people to recognize that it was horrible,” Berliner says. “Look at civil suits; you get more money the worse off you are.”
Berliner constantly tells reporters there is no correlation between the atrociousness of the attack and the aftereffects. Some people are ruined, and others recover. It has more to do with the victim’s emotional resources than it does with the crime itself.
In the 12 years since The Des Moines Register broke the taboo on naming a rape victim, journalists have duplicated that project again and again. The results are powerful. Readers and viewers appreciate a story they don’t always hear. Victims feel empowered when they can share their experiences. Yet, those facts cannot be reconciled with the research numbers, particularly the one in which rape victims say they worry other people will find out.
What we need to know about rape is that we still haven’t told the entire truth. Maybe that’s what was so alluring about the night of Aug. 1, that desire to get closer to the truth.
Kelly McBride is on the ethics faculty at the Poynter Institute. Much of this article originated in discussions with her Poynter colleagues Bob Steele, Keith Woods and Roy Peter Clark. Poynter Librarian David Shedden provided the research.