Should news organizations identify the accuser in the Duke lacrosse case?
Sally Dadisman is an AJR editorial assistant.
"It was Crystal Gail Mangum's own words that brought supporters to her side."
These words led a front-page story in Raleigh's News & Observer April 12 as part of its coverage of the denouement in the Duke lacrosse rape case. The mainstream media had consistently named the three athletes accused of raping Mangum, but her name was almost universally absent from stories until the charges were dropped.
The News & Observer, like other major news organizations, had withheld her identity as part of a longstanding policy not to name reported victims of sexual assault. The rules aim to protect victims from the stigma associated with such crimes. But some media critics wonder whether these policies do more harm than good: Do they help perpetuate the stigma? Do they imply a presumption of guilt by naming the accused and not the accuser? Is the practice outmoded, now that victims' names in high-profile cases are widely available on the Internet?
In the Duke case, these delicate questions were further complicated by an unusual set of circumstances: After Mangum's shifting story unraveled, North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper on April 11 declared the accused "innocent" of all charges.
No mainstream outlets released her identity before the prosecution dropped rape charges in December 2006 (kidnapping and sex-offense charges were still pending). At that time, Fox News Channel's "The Big Story with John Gibson" broadcast a tape of defense lawyers saying her name. The Chicago Sun-Times, CBS' "60 Minutes," the Charlotte Observer and the New York Post printed her name after Cooper's announcement. AJR decided to name Mangum in this story, based on Cooper's declaration and the fact that her allegations have been discredited.
Many major news organizations, including the New York Times, Washington Post, Newsday and the Associated Press, followed their policies and still did not name her.
Locally, news organizations split: While the N&O named her, Durham's Herald-Sun did not. On television, local CBS affiliate WRAL and NBC affiliate WNCN named her; ABC affiliate WTVD did not.
News & Observer Executive Editor Melanie Sill says editors solicited input from advocates for sexual assault victims, defense lawyers and ethicists, among others, as they considered how to proceed. "They almost uniformly did not want to see the newspaper identify sexual assault victims," Sill says. "But at the same time, they thought this case was exceptional, and they didn't protest or criticize us afterwards."
The editors also weighed Cooper's use of the word "innocent" as well as the paper's own reporting, which showed Mangum "was not entirely credible."
Sill says the paper must be seen as neutral. "As time had gone on, there became two sides who claimed to be injured parties"--first the accuser, then the accused. "So by not identifying her after the attorney general's conclusions, we then were taking a side," she says.
The Herald-Sun, which has a policy not to name any crime victims, had its own meeting of senior editors and decided the opposite. "There was just no factor that overrode our normal policy," says Managing Editor Bill Stagg. "We felt in addition we needed to be careful because of the reference the attorney general made to her mental-health condition."
Stagg recognizes that some readers might wish the paper would name the accuser because "they might think she had it coming," but says that's the wrong basis for such a decision. "We didn't want retribution to be the reason we named her," he says. Nor did he feel pressured by competitors. "If 10 people jumped out the window, would you be the 11th?" he asks. "Do we want to compound behavior just because everyone else is doing it?"
Kelly McBride, an ethics specialist for the Poynter Institute, wrote a January column exploring how news organizations could decide whether to name the accuser in the Duke case. She listed three important principles to consider: "reporting the truth as fully as possible," "remaining independent" and "minimizing harm." She also suggested a model to guide such judgments, placing scenarios at various points along a scale labeled "yes," "no" and "maybe."
When a "prosecutor drops charges or refuses to file charges and publicly states that the accuser's story is shaky and unreliable," the decision falls in the "maybe" category, McBride wrote. If newspapers have done independent reporting and determined themselves that an accuser's case is unreliable and false, she added, then the scale tips to "yes." Sill says she and her staff are taking McBride's model into account as they consider a standard for future coverage.
For Geneva Overholser, printing an accuser's name is the only acceptable decision in nearly all instances. Overholser, who teaches at the Missouri School of Journalism, was editor of the Des Moines Register when it won a Pulitzer Prize in 1991 for a story on a rape victim, who agreed to let the paper publish her name.
"In the long run, we'll never get rid of the stigma if we don't treat these like regular crimes," says Overholser, who makes exceptions for cases involving minors. She also argues that naming the accused and not the accuser is unfair. "It's just not ethical to make a choice about guilt or innocence, which is effectively what we do," she says. "It makes us look like we are assuming innocence on one part, guilt on another.. We should not be determining who deserves our protection."
As the Internet's influence grows, some also worry that the protection the media are trying to offer becomes ineffective. "There is no sense in being gatekeepers if there is no fence," Overholser says. Sill says the prevalence of Mangum's name online was a small factor in the N&O's decision to name her.
If the Duke case has accomplished anything, it has pushed some in the media to reevaluate accepted practices. At the N&O, which had withheld accusers' names in sexual-assault cases for 24 years, editors currently are reviewing their policies.
"But we want to get a little distance," Sill says, "and make sure we're not making policy that just addresses the Duke lacrosse case."###