Poynter Online - Name the Accuser and the Accused: In the crime of rape, it is time we named the accuser as well as the accused. [...] What fundamental elements of good journalism these are: Getting at issues that most people prefer not be dealt with. And naming names is an essential part of the commitment to accuracy, credibility, and fairness. This practice frequently brings pain to individuals; truth-telling does have its victims. My own view is that recovery from difficult times is, like journalism, abetted by openness and hampered by secrecy. But the larger point is this: Openness serves society as a whole. It serves enlightenment and understanding and progress. And it serves the criminal justice system .... But here is the new development: As a practical matter, whether shielding rape victims was the right thing to do or not, it no longer makes sense. Newspapers are not -- as they once were -- the gatekeepers of such information. The culture has changed.
On the one hand, it seems, and really is, inconsistent to name both the accuser and the accused in every other crime, but to shield the accuser for this one. Whatever a given policy is, its application should be consistent.
On the other ... Consider this: every day, people's houses are burgled, they're robbed at gunpoint and knifepoint. These people never give a thought to whether their personal details are published in relationship to those events, partly because they almost never are, absent some sensational hook, some odd aberration regarding the crimes. In the big city, those are common, every-day crimes. No blood, no guts, no gore, no reporting. Personal details are reported regarding other physical assaults -- which some do mind, to be sure -- and murder. However, the murdered are in no position to object.
On the other hand, most people would detest having details of their personal sexual history published without their consent. For all that rape is a crime of violence, unconsented and undesired, intended to degrade and humiliate, it is part of the individual's sexual history. Especially after you've been forced to yield that sort of intimate control over your own body, most people would prefer to maintain control over what is told about that crime and who is told; it's the one measure of control regarding that which they might retain.
One of Ms Overholser's points may no longer be true. In this day of mass media, of sensationalized details, of inaccurate reporting leading to the pillorying of innocent bystanders -- one of the accuser's friends in this case was inaccurately named as the accuser herself, and has been enduring a great deal of difficulty as a result -- the criminal justice system may not be at all well served by publishing the name of either accuser or accused. The names of both do need to be a matter of record. But exactly how public should that record be, and why?
People want to know everything, yes -- but what exactly do they have a right to know? One of the problems is that in the media's urge to sensationalize, and the public's desire for ever more sensational entertainment, it's very easy to report so much information with such detail, and such a slant, that it's impossible for the accused to receive anything like a truly fair trial. The accused also ends up taking much damage to their reputation. The culture has in fact, changed. The media has a much broader reach than it once did. Even 100, 150 years ago, a case like Kobe Bryant's would have been big news in Los Angeles where he lives or in the town where he stands accused, but wouldn't really have been much reported anywhere else. There were fewer national celebrities, and it was much more difficult for a case to reach a national or international audience. Not impossible, just more difficult. On the one hand, democracy depends vitally on an informed citizenry -- but what does knowing all this about the accused and accuser benefit the democracy itself? What is the value? On the other, the justice system may best be served by a somewhat UNinformed jury pool. You may have opinions on how certain crimes should be handled, to be sure, but you can't form a prejudiced opinion about specific cases when you don't know the details.
Interestingly, the one type of sexual assault case where the accuser is almost always named are those involving the kidnapping and assault of children. For the most part, this type of naming is accidental. Information about the child is released to enable the public to help the police find the child and the kidnapper. When the child and kidnapper are later found alive, the kidnapper is not infrequently charged with sexual assault, at which point everyone knows what happened. The media find themselves in the odd position of either trying to put the genie back into the bottle -- so you read terribly strange articles following well publicized abductions that talk about crimes committed against some abstract child when you know perfectly well who it is -- or shrugging and going ford to prevent looking that absurd. It's peculiar that the system protects adult women from this sort of disclosure when it can, but winds up forcing it on children.Posted by iain at July 24, 2003 12:33 PM