Media Should Identify Rape Victims

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I do not know the name of the woman who accused Kobe Bryant (search) of sexual assault.  I think I should.

I could find out if I wanted to; her name, apparently, is posted on various websites and so, according to Leonora LaPeter of the St. Petersburg [Florida] Times (search), are “her yearbook photos, her phone number, her street and e-mail addresses." 

But I do not want to learn her name from the web.  I want to learn it from mainstream newspapers and mainstream radio talk shows and mainstream TV newscasts.  I do not believe, as is the convention in journalism, that the identity of an alleged rape victim should be protected.

It is a controversial subject, and many people in the media disagree with me.  Among them are my bosses at Fox News Channel.  I understand their reasoning.  I respect their reasoning.  But I think it is out of date.  And unfair.

News outlets have long been shielding those who charge sexual assault (search).  The practice began in a different time, when there was a great deal of shame attached to the crime, when it was somehow thought, however perversely, that a woman who suffered such a fate was somehow responsible for it, that she was “asking for it,” or that, even if she was not, she had somehow become morally sullied by the vile deed of her aggressor.

We do not think that anymore.  We are more enlightened than that now.  We know that rape is a traumatic crime, much more so than a mugging or a robbery or a defrauding, but it is similar to these in that it does not reflect poorly on the character of the victim.

The names of those who have been mugged, robbed or cheated are not withheld by the media.  The names of those who have been raped should not be withheld, either.

But it is not just because societal attitudes have changed that I believe a rape victim’s identity should be part of the public record.

Nor do I believe her identity should be part of the public record because it already is, in all too many cases, part of the web record.

In my view, there is something more serious involved here.  Call it the law of unintended consequences.

For although shielding the name of a woman who accuses a man of rape might encourage some women to come forward and reveal the crime, it might encourage others to come forward and tell a lie.  In other words, this journalistic practice, intended as a courtesy, can also act as a temptation — a temptation to accuse falsely, to use the anonymity provided by the media not as a means of avoiding embarrassment, but as a tool to slander an innocent person without having to face public scrutiny for bearing false witness.

If shielding merely protected an innocent woman from humiliation, I would favor it.  But it can also protect an unscrupulous woman from responsibility.  It must be re-examined.

I have no reason to think that the woman who accused Kobe Bryant is unscrupulous.  But I have every reason to think that she and Bryant should stand equally in both the courts of law and public opinion.  His name is known, and it is mud; it does not speak well for a democratic nation that a once respectable person can be brought so low by a charge rendered anonymously.

If the charge is true, no opprobrium will be attached to the woman who made it; Bryant’s lowness will be confirmed and his victim will be vindicated.  If it is not true, and a name is affixed to the woman’s dishonesty, perhaps the next woman who thinks of accusing a man falsely will change her mind before she speaks.

Eric Burns is the host of Fox News Watch, which airs Saturdays at 6:30 p.m. ET/3:30 p.m. PT and Sundays at 1:30 a.m. ET/10:30 p.m. PT, 6:30 a.m. ET/3:30 a.m. PT, and 11 p.m. ET/8 p.m. PT.

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