Breaking Silence

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Most American newspapers do not publish the names of rape victims.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 juvenile offenders.

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 of law?

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.

Go Back to Shy David's Sexual Assault Page.