U.S. news media debate naming Strauss-Kahn accuser

Reuters News
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Posted: Jul 08, 2011 9:28 AM
U.S. news media debate naming Strauss-Kahn accuser

By Joseph Ax

NEW YORK (Reuters) - By now, anyone following the Dominique Strauss-Kahn sexual assault case knows plenty about the woman who accused him: her age, origins, work history, relatives and, most recently, a series of lies and misstatements she gave to investigators.

But one detail has remained concealed by major U.S. media: her name.

Citing the unique stigma of rape, American news outlets have for decades refused to identify victims and alleged victims of sexual assault, even as they investigate their backgrounds.

As recent revelations raise doubts about the credibility of Strauss-Kahn's accuser, and the attempted rape case against the former International Monetary Fund chief appears close to collapse, news organizations have begun to revisit these long-held policies.

"It's an ethical minefield," said Adam Penenberg, a journalism professor at New York University. "It puts everybody in an impossible position."

The woman's name has already been published by numerous news outlets in Europe and Africa, where accusers' names are more routinely reported.

An Internet search will reveal it is on hundreds of websites. Some journalism experts say that renders the convention of anonymity increasingly meaningless.

No major U.S. news organization has yet revealed the woman's name, even as her credibility has been seriously questioned.

"Editors here have discussed the situation as new developments have emerged in this case," said Phil Corbett, the New York Times' associate managing editor for standards.

"As of now, the authorities continue to consider the woman to be the victim in an alleged sexual assault, and we have stuck to our normal practice of not identifying her."

Editors at Reuters debated the issue and decided the woman should remain unidentified, said Jim Gaines, the global head of ethics, standards and innovation.

"It was very brief, because we all know what the rule is," Gaines said. "It's hard to anticipate the circumstances under which we would name her, unless she named herself."

WHEN SHOULD POLICY CHANGE?

Are there circumstances that would justify dropping the policy and identifying the woman?

Several editors said a dismissal of the charges against Strauss-Kahn would probably be insufficient to convince them to use his accuser's name, unless, for example, authorities seek to charge her with perjury for suspicion of lying under oath.

"I would distinguish between charges being dropped and charges being brought against her," said Roger Smith, the national editor for the Los Angeles Times.

Corbett said there is no "clear, bright line" that would indicate when to use her name.

Journalists are not legally bound to conceal the identities of sexual assault victims -- the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that news outlets may use them if legally obtained. But with rare exceptions, the media have refrained from doing that.

One exception was NBC News' decision in 1991 to identify the woman who accused a Kennedy family member, William Kennedy Smith, of raping her. That sparked a national conversation about privacy and the media's responsibility to rape victims.

The prevailing view, then as now, is that sexual assault is uniquely damaging and worthy of an exception.

"The reality is that as journalists, we have a special responsibility to help ensure that women feel safe reporting sexual assault. It's not like other crimes," said Bruce Shapiro, head of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at Columbia University in New York.

FEAR OF SACRIFICING PRIVACY

Some experts say there is also a societal obligation to encourage victims to come forward without fear of sacrificing their privacy.

"What about the next woman, and the one after that?" said Alisa Solomon, a journalism professor at Columbia.

A handful of journalists assert the practice of withholding victims' names runs counter to journalism's goal of providing a complete and truthful account.

One dissenter is Geneva Overholser, who as editor of the Des Moines Register won the 1991 Pulitzer Prize for public service for a series about a woman's ordeal as a rape victim.

"We're setting ourselves up to do something that feels very much like social work, not journalism, and that's not our role," said Overholser, now the director of the School of Journalism at the University of Southern California.

To Overholser, the debate in the Strauss-Kahn case only underscores the problem with concealing the name in the first place. By splashing his name and photo across front pages while withholding hers, she said, there is an implicit judgment that one side is wrong and the other is right.

"If anything, it helps continue the stigma," she said. "We're signaling to rape victims that they have to go and sit in a dark corner."

(Reporting by Joseph Ax, editing by Jesse Wegman and Grant McCool)