It's wrong to report the names of rape victims

Mike Royko

April 24, 1991|By Mike Royko | Mike Royko,Tribune Media Services

THUMBING THROUGH The New York Times, I noticed that the stories contained the usual number of People With No Names.

You've seen the People with No Names in newspapers. I've even known some. They are identified as "a government official," "an administration official," a "Western official," a "Pentagon official," "a campaign official" or a "White House official."

Maybe you've wondered: "Why don't these people have names?"

The answer is that they do, but don't want their names used in the story. Maybe they're leaking a choice tidbit of news but they don't want their boss to know they talk to reporters, or they're saying something mean about someone else. It can be any number of reasons, most of them for self-protection.

Whenever you see People with No Names being quoted, they're usually talking about something significant: World affairs, international affairs, war, peace, treaties, taxes. You seldom read: "A low-level Sanitation Department official said: 'Yeah, this garbage smells really bad in the summer.'"

So it seems odd that respected newspapers such as The New York Times routinely give me significant information that comes from the mouths of People with No Names. Yet, The New York Times has seen fit to provide me with a name that didn't do anything to make me a well-informed citizen.

A few days ago, the Times decided to publish the name of the woman who says she was raped by a member of the Kennedy clan at the family's Palm Beach estate. Not merely her name, but intimate details of her personal life.

Newspapers just don't do that. Because of the nature of the crime, they respect the wish of most rape victims not to be publicly identified.

But in this case, the Times was part of an outbreak of galloping journalistic idiocy.

The Times published the woman's name because there is a Kennedy family angle, which always makes editors drool, and because NBC had already used her name on its network news show first.

NBC said it used her name because a supermarket tabloid in Palm Beach had already published it. So NBC decided that as long as every gossip in the Palm Beach area knew who the woman was, NBC "should report this news to our viewers."

Naturally, the editors at the Times, the president of NBC, and other papers that have suddenly revised their rape-story policies, are now giving us lofty motives.

They want to remove the "stigma" from rape. They want to help end the idea that a woman who is raped has anything to be ashamed of and is "damaged goods."

That's fine. The only problem is that there are about 250 million people in this country, and many of them aren't as enlightened about rape as editors and network presidents. And publishing or broadcasting her name is not going to make them any more enlightened. Nor will public attitudes be changed by running a story, as the Times did, about the woman's private life. She got a lot of traffic tickets. My, isn't that significant? She is a single parent. Isn't that shocking? She goes in bars. I feel faint.

I have news about enlightenment for these editors and network biggies: In countless barrooms across this nation, the first questions asked about the woman will be: "Hey, you saw her picture on TV? Is she good-looking?"

Now other papers are jumping on the garbage wagon. And most of them are peddling the same phony self-justification: The public's right to know, remove the stigma, treat it like any other crime, blah, blah, blah. This is the stuff journalism school deans ponder in their spare time, which is considerable.

Who says the public has the right to know this woman's name? The New York Times or NBC didn't think the public had the right to know the name of the woman in the Central Park "wilding" rape case. They could have used the same justification, that someone else had already made her name public. (A black New York paper had published it as an act of racial vindictiveness.)

I'll tell you why they didn't use the Central Park victim's name. She is from an influential segment of New York's financial community, and the editors of the Times would have had big shots screaming in their faces.

If we have the right to know the name of this woman, why don't we have the right to know the names of the "White House official," the "Pentagon official," the "reliable source," and all these other People with No Names who are always in the Times, and frequently quoted by NBC's Washington reporters?

Is it their profound editorial judgment that it is the public's best interest to know the names of obscure women who have been hurt and humiliated, but that we really don't have to know the names of the prominent government officials who are talking about the great issues of the day?

I've been in the newspaper business for 36 years. Not once have I been asked: "As a reader, I demand to know why your paper doesn't print the names of rape victims. What about my right to know?" Nor have I ever been told: "I am a rape victim. Please see to it that my name is spread far and wide."

But I have been told that the editors at The New York Times and the president of NBC News seem to "have lost their marbles." I can't tell you who said that, but trust me, it was a "reliable source."

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.