Breaking Silence. The Economist, 28 July 1990
The Economist, 28 July 1990
Unhindered by official-secrets acts, libel suits or almighty
presidents, the American press is among the world's freest. Yet even the
_New York Times_ agrees that reporting of rape is "one of modern
journalism's few conspiracies of silence". For the first time, it is now a
conspiracy being discussed in political contests.
Most American newspapers do not publish the names of rape victims. A
rare exception, the _Winston-Salem Journal_ in North Carolina, reports the
names of victims after charges are filed, the principle being that the
accused has a right to confront the accuser. But the way newspapers and
television have covered the case of the Central Park jogger, gang-raped and
left for dead in April 1989, is more typical. Two New York television
stations reported the jogger's name after the attack, but both publicly
regretted it. Since then, not least at the victim's request, most media in
the area, including the _New York Time_, have kept the name to themselves.
The silence is largely self-imposed because few laws cover the issue.
A Florida weekly was found in violation of a state law forbidding the
publishing of victims' names, but a Supreme Court decision overturned the
conviction. That was in 1989, the same year that the _Des Moines Register_
broke new ground in the debate.
Ms Geneva Overholser, the _Register_'s editor, while admitting that
there was sometimes a case for silence, urged rape victims to come forward
voluntarily. "As long as rape is deemed unspeakable", she wrote, "public
outrage will be muted as well."
After ten days and a lot of thought, Mrs Nancy Ziegenmeyer telephoned.
Raped, robbed and abducted in November 1988, she now agreed to let the
_Register_ tell her story. This appeared in February 1990, after her
attacker had been sentenced to life in prison. Successive articles
described the rape, the investigation, the trial and their impact on both
victim and defendant. The series drew national attention.
Readers' letters were strongly supportive. Then the _Register_ learnt
that the Des Moines police department was blacking out victims' names in
their official reports, possibly against state law. After a letter from Ms
Overholser, the police backed down, but not before a disgruntled policeman
had leaked the story to a television station, which implied that the
newspaper was pruriently attempting to get victims' names.
The _Register_'s policy, which Ms Overholser calls "transitional", is
that reporters are to seek names in order to contact victims, but to
publish their names only with their permission. Readers disapprove. As
for the police, they have changed their policy four times within a month,
not only with regard to rape victims, but also with witnesses, suspects and
Enter the politicians. Iowa's public-records law is fairly typical of
others across America. The current version includes 25 rather elaborate
exceptions to the requirement that anything done by public officials is on
the record. Mr Ed Kelly, the Republican candidate for state attorney-
general, reckons, along with at least one of the legal scholars who helped
write the law, that naming rape victims can be construed to be one of the
exceptions. But Mr Kelly's Democratic opponent, Mrs Bonnie Campbell, wants
to change the law anyway.
Other candidates have also rushed to give their views, though few are
sure where the votes in it lie. If names appear, rape will go unreported,
declares Mr Don Avenson, the Democratic challenger for governor. Mr Terry
Branstad, the Republican incumbent, cannily asked the Democratic attorney-
general, Mr Tom Miller, for an opinion. A former Republican lieutenant-
governor says the issue could split Democratic feminists from Democratic
civil libertarians; a feminist state senator suggests that candidates
seeking the women's vote on the question do not know where it is.
Okay, folks, let's talk. What do you think should be journalism's generic
policy regarding the publishing of crime victims' names in general? Of
publishing rape victims' names, specifically? Should rape be exempted from
the generic policy, or not, and why?
Also, the article says that the _Winston-Salem Journal_ prints the names,
based on the principle that "the accused has a right to confront the
accuser". Now, I most certainly do not wish to deny any accused of this
very fundamental right, but does any accused have the right to face the
accuser in a NEWSPAPER? Or should that right be exercised only in a court
This parallels a recent nasty that happened at Arizona State University
last semester: there was a bit of a problem with homosexuals in bathrooms,
and several arrests were made. While the college paper's standard policy
is to not list arrested person's names in their Police Report section (the
paper rarely prints *anybody*'s name in that section), that policy was
broken so as to list the names of persons arrested for the crime of having
sex in a public bathroom. When called on it, the paper really had no
defense; alas, it wasn't called on the discrepancy until most (or all?) of
the arrests had already been made and reported, so whether the paper
decided to become consistent in its reporting was never determined.