OPINION, page 19 Christian Science Monitor  April 26, 1991

Media and Rape


Tiffany Devitt and Steve Rhodes. 

THERE is one very good reason for the news media to withhold the names of
women who say they have been raped: Many who have have been violated find it
profoundly hurtful and embarrassing to be subject to public scrutiny.

Sexual assault is a crime of violence and power. In order to heal, survivors
need to assert control over their lives - including control over whether
their name should be disclosed.

Some advocates of disclosure argue, compassionately, that the stigma will
fade if the names of survivors are printed. But if decades and volumes of
coverage have done little to improve the image of rape survivors, what will
a few more words do?

NBC News president Michael Gartner was the first mainstream news executive
to decide to divulge the name of the woman who says she was raped at the
Kennedy estate at Palm Beach. Mr. Gartner said ``you try to give viewers as
many facts as you can and let them make up their minds.'' His commitment to
informing his viewers is subject to debate, however. Not long ago, when Jon
Alpert, an NBC news stringer for 12 years, returned from Iraq with dramatic
footage of civilian areas devastated by US bombing, Gartner not only
ordered the footage not be aired but ended Alpert's relationship with the

Immediately after NBC released the name of the Palm Beach woman pressing
charges, the New York Times published a lengthy article which contained not
only her name but a host of details about her life, including the fact that
she had skipped classes in 9th grade, had driven 70 miles per hour in a 55
zone, and had, while being "escorted'' by one man, talked to other men. The
gossipy article relied 12 times on unnamed sources. It ended by listing
children's books in the room of the woman's young daughter - information
gleaned from peeping through a window.

The implication communicated by sensational inquiries into the victim's
character is that she isn't worthy of public compassion. Though many news
media were quick to dredge up embarrassing details about the alleged
victim's life, few publications cited the police records describing her as
``distraught,'' ``crying,'' and ``shaking'' when reporting the crime, and
very reluctant to tell who had assaulted her.

Those media that have found space to probe the woman's private life have not
found the space to cover the public issue of sexual assault. Where was the coverage
of the April 9, 1991 Senate Judiciary hearings on the Violence Against Women Act,
which showed that violence against women is increasing at twice the rate of
violence against men? Or the financial constraints that threaten to close
rape crisis centers across the country?

In covering the Central Park jogger rape the media behaved very differently.
Without using the name of the investment banker who was assaulted by a group
of African-American youths, the press generated public sympathy for the
victim. Unlike the Palm Beach woman, few in the mainstream media questioned her
credibility. One wonders to what extent the difference lay in the race and
class of the accused and accusers.

It's not that the Palm Beach woman is as worthy of public concern as any
other woman. That much is obvious. The point is that by portraying a victim
as deserving or undeserving the media focuses on who she is - what she was
wearing, drinking, her age, marital status, and name - instead of on what
the accused did or didn't do. Rape as a crime is too often measured in the
media in terms of the character of the victims, rather than the action of
the perpetrators.

Hundreds of thousands of sexual assaults are committed each year. By
focusing only on individual women and lurid details in celebrated cases, the
press can miss a bigger story. The public does have a right to know. It is
entitled to know, for example, that over 80 percent of sexual assaults are
by acquaintances, and that survivors are often ill-treated by the police and

By pointing to the absence of a name or a face as the shortcoming in
coverage of rape, the media engages in victim-blaming. What is needed to end
the stigma associated with sexual assault is reporting that exposes the
myths and institutions - including some media outlets - that support a rape
Tiffany Devitt was Managing Editor of Extra!, published by FAIR, the New York-based media watch group, and Steve Rhodes was a FAIR associate when this was originally published by the Christian Science Monitor. He facilitated acquaintance rape prevention workshops at the University of Illinois and worked at LaCasa, a rape crisis center near Chicago.

Rape Coverage: Shifting the Blame, an Extra! I did research for is also on the web. I'll try and get some other pieces I've worked on about media coverage of sexual assualt up soon. There also is an excellent Sexual Assault Information Page.

Back to the web page of Steve Rhodes. Comments can be sent to srhodes@well.com