Jewish World Review Feb. 26, 2003/ 24 Adar I, 5763
Is Central Park Jogger 'abusing' the media?
http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | The Central Park Jogger's memoir, due to be published in April, has journalists once again debating the media's practice of protecting rape victims' identities.
The immediate question is: Should the media continue to protect the privacy of the jogger, given that she is about to reveal her identity in the book? As a privacy issue, the question seems moot, as Allan Wolper argues in Editor and Publisher, an industry magazine.
Wolper makes the reasonable case that book publishers are manipulating the media by keeping the jogger's name mum prior to the book's debut in order to enhance sales. The story of the jogger's brutal rape and beating, in which she lost two-thirds of her blood and was left for dead, "was about a vicious sexual assault," writes Wolper.
"This one is about marketing the victim of that assault. It is about abusing the practice the media use to protect victims."
On the other side of the debate is Kelly McBride, an ethics faculty member of the Poynter Institute, a journalism school. "It smacks of hypocrisy to go after her just because she is making money off her story," says McBride in an online essay at www.poynter.org.
The larger question prompted by the jogger debate is whether the media should continue the voluntary practice of protecting rape victims' identity at all. Some say yes, some no. McBride, who has led discussions among rape victims and journalists, leans toward withholding victims' names, as do most journalists after hearing rape victims' remarks.
I love debates among journalists about what best serves the public, especially when journalists themselves become the arbiters of what is just and fair. Debating whether to publish the name of a person who has been assaulted in the most intimate way feels like the privileged quandary of the unraped.
No, I haven't been raped, unless one subscribes to the all-sex-is-rape school of feminist hysteria. But I know people who have, one of whom - "Mary" - has this to say about whether to publish victims' names: "Hell no."
"Never under any circumstances should the rape victim's name be published without her permission."
That seems clear enough. Reasonable. And consummately fair to someone who already has suffered enough pain and humiliation. Mary, for the record, was raped in her home at knifepoint by a stranger who climbed in an upstairs window while Mary's husband was working late.
One of the arguments in favor of publishing victims' names is that withholding identity further stigmatizes rather than protects victims. While editor of the Des Moines Register several years ago, Geneva Overholser urged rape victims to come forward.
"As long as rape is deemed unspeakable," she wrote, "public outrage will be muted as well." The paper won a Pulitzer in 1991 for its series about the rape of an Iowa woman that used the woman's name and photograph.
As for coming forward, Mary says more power to women who are comfortable going public with something that put Mary in therapy for years. "I'm sure that's empowering to some," she says. "But my best way to survive emotionally was to move on."
Indeed, Mary never prosecuted because her attacker, whom she identified in a police lineup, was put behind bars for armed robbery and kidnapping. She might have decided otherwise, she says, were he still on the streets and a danger to others.
Bottom line: "I didn't want my identity always to be that of victim. I didn't want people to see me and have their first thought be, 'Oh that poor dear, she was raped, you know.'"
Whether one agrees with Mary's decision, it was inarguably hers to make. To think that some reporter or editor should parse another's intimate pain is the definition of adding insult to injury.
That said, I am sympathetic to arguments that those accused of rape are publicly smeared before guilt is established. As the definition of rape gets looser and looser ("I drank a glass of wine, I couldn't have consented!"), the likelihood of dubious claims increases, while men's lives and reputations become ever more vulnerable.
The obvious solution is simple and protects everyone: Don't publish anyone's name in rape cases. If and when the accused is found guilty, his name hits the papers. Otherwise, it's his word against hers and - this may sound vaguely familiar - he's innocent until proven guilty.
As for the Central Park Jogger, the media ought to leave the woman alone and let her tell her own story. So she makes some money off her nightmare. Who loses? If movie reviewers can withhold the ending of a suspense movie such as "The Sixth Sense," surely Journalism can skip a scoop out of pure gamesmanship if nothing else.
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