Naming Alleged Rape Victims: Two Policies Within 30 Miles
By Elizabeth Culotta
Elizabeth Culotta, a former Milwaukee Journal reporter, is a Durham, North Carolina-based writer.
Rape victims in northwestern North Carolina may want to take note of where the attack took place when deciding whether to press charges. The Greensboro News & Record, located in Guilford County, will not print their names. In adjacent Forsyth County, the Winston-Salem Journal identifies alleged victims the moment charges are filed.
"We identify the accuser when there is an accused," explains Journal Managing Editor Joe Goodman. "We've had that policy forever."
In the recent Mike Tyson rape case, for example, the name of victim Desiree Washington was not included in early wire reports. So a Journal reporter phoned the Indianapolis courthouse where the case was being tried to find out the 18-year-old's name. (The paper, however, does not name alleged rape victims who are under age 18.)
Goodman says that by naming victims, the news-paper hopes to fight the stigma often associated with rape. "We're trying to begin to look at rape victims as you would a victim of any other crime – that is, guiltless," he says.
Goodman says the Journal's policy also stems from the need to be fair to people accused of rape. "Quite often there's a possibility of false accusation," he says. Explaining the paper's position to readers last year, Publisher Joe Doster wrote that it was "troublesome" to print a story that accused someone of a crime punishable in North Carolina by death without naming the accuser. When the paper's policy first began in 1971, an editorial further suggested that "the certainty of publicity" might discourage "frivolous or malicious prosecution."
Twenty-eight miles away, Greensboro News & Record Managing Editor Ned Cline agrees that rape carries a stigma. But, he says, that's why his newspaper usually doesn't print accusers' names. There have been a handful of exceptions, however, since the policy was implemented in 1978. The paper printed Desiree Washington's name after she identified herself in the national media. And during William Kennedy Smith's trial for rape in Palm Beach, the paper identified his accuser, Patricia Bowman, in a feature story that compared the Bowman family with the Kennedys.
"We felt that in running the story and identifying the family, we'd essentially identified her, so we used the name," he says. Bowman wasn't identified in the paper's daily trial coverage.
Case-by-case decisions are exactly what the Winston-Salem Journal wants to avoid, Goodman says. Such a policy requires editors to determine whether the accused or the accuser is more likely to be telling the truth, he says. "We're sort of like the courts – we don't know who's right," he says. "We let it all be hashed out in public."
Predictably, the paper has its critics, including a coalition of women's and victim support groups. The groups argue that printing accusers' names deters victims from pressing charges when a rape has occurred, and they're lobbying for a change in the paper's policy.
"We work with women who choose not to go forward in part because of concern about being named in the paper," says Mike Turner of Family Services, a victim support service.
But Goodman argues that little evidence supports the coalition's contention, and he cites crime statistics in Forsyth and Guilford counties to reinforce his point. In Forsyth, where the Winston-Salem Journal names names and where the county has 80,000 fewer people than Guilford, there were 181 rapes reported in 1990. In Guilford, 140 rapes were reported.
Yet a recent survey of 4,008 women, conducted jointly by the National Victim Center and the Crime Victims Research and Treatment Center, found that two-thirds believed they would be more likely to report sexual assaults if there were a law banning disclosure of their names. The survey also concluded that 84 percent of rapes go unreported and that 60 percent of rapes occur before the victim has turned 18. In a separate survey of 370 rape crisis agencies, 40 percent said they believed sexual assault victims were more concerned now than in the past with their names being made public. ###