Let's stop naming names

Cheryl Walters

May 17, 1991|By Cheryl Walters

THE KENNEDY family is in the news. Again.

And so is the woman allegedly raped by a member of the Kennedy clan, even though her name would not have appeared in the newspapers nor her face on TV had she accused nearly any other man in America.

Most newspapers don't publish the names of rape victims. But since there was a celebrity, or, in this case, a celebrated family involved, a British tabloid broke the rule -- and as it did, many other journalists abandoned their policies, claiming it was permissible to publish her name because "they did it first."

I don't agree. In fact, news organizations should stop publishing the names of victims of all crimes and institute a policy limiting the publication of names of the accused, until a verdict is rendered.

I believe all crime victims should be treated equally, whether it's rape or theft or whether the victim is Jane Doe or a Hollywood star. The same goes for the alleged assailant. Remember: "Innocent until proven guilty."

I recently surveyed 123 newspaper editors for my senior paper. Of those responding, nearly 97 percent have a policy against disclosure (some formal, others inferred by management). They cite various reasons, including: fairness to the victim, societal pressures against the victims and against the paper printing the name, privacy of the victim, tradition ("we've always done it this way") and because readers do not want it.

Arguments given by editors in favor of printing the names include: because it is right to provide accurate and complete crime information to the public, because rape should be treated as any other crime, because it is fair to victims of other crimes and because it is fair to the accused (whose name is published).

I understand the reasons given on both sides of the issue, but I'm glad the vast majority of the papers I surveyed choose not to publish victims' names. However, most of the editors I talked to said the rules can change when celebrities are involved or if the case "goes national."

What makes it "right" not to publish when the Joneses are involved, but to publish when the Kennedys are involved? What happens to all of those good reasons for not printing the names? The standards seem to vanish when there's a story that exploits the public curiosity about scandals involving the rich and famous.

Of course, not all newspapers make exceptions to their "no publication of names" policy. Some even say "no" even when the victim wants the publicity.

Some victims, according to a similar survey of rape counselors, believe "telling their story" helps them recover faster and more easily. More than 35 percent of the editors noted they had been approached by a rape victim who wanted publicity. However, the editors overwhelmingly believe they -- not the victim -- should make the decision, even if the victim wants to be interviewed. The rape counselors prefer to leave it up to the victim.

I'd rather not see any victim's name in print, no matter who makes the decision. I agree with the editors who do publish names only in that rape shouldn't be treated differently from any other crime. So don't publish any names. All victims deserve privacy. This courtesy was extended to the "Central Park jogger" assault victim a couple of years ago, and rightly so.

What did revealing the name in the Kennedy case contribute to the public welfare? It certainly sold newspapers. It also further disrupted the lives of the alleged victim and her family -- not to mention the negative fallout that the accused and his prominent relatives are suffering.

It may be unrealistic to expect that any story -- especially one featuring sexual scandal -- involving a family as prominent as the Kennedys would be kept out of the media. But it seems patently unfair that the alleged victim is twice victimized. And how many other victims will now decide not to report a rape? It is estimated that only one in 10 rapes is reported. Some experts say the numbers will drop to about one in 20 if journalists begin naming names. The statistic alone should be enough to keep the victims' names out of the press.

And that may be the only positive effect of this highly publicized incident: It focuses public and media attention on the issue of naming names, an issue that clearly deserves further discussion among editors and other decision-makers in the media.

Let's hope this issue is addressed now, before the headlines are forgotten -- and before another victim's name is dragged through the media mud.

Cheryl Walters, who lives in Jefferson, Md., is a senior communications major at Hood College. She adapted this from her senior honors research project. She graduates tomorrow.

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.