Sheila Gibbons

(WOMENSENEWS)–The thorny question of naming or not naming victims of sexual assault is back in the news again, unhappily for all concerned.

I’ve been undecided about this issue for a long time. I can understand both sides of the argument about not naming women who have been raped; preserving privacy for the traumatized victim, on the one hand, and the problem of incomplete media reports about the crime on theother. But recent events have prompted me to come down on the side of including the identity of sexual assault victims in news reports, just as reporters do in their accounts of beatings, stabbings and shootings.

The events that affected me did not involve the uproar over the rape charges filed last month in Colorado against the basketball star Kobe Bryant. Identifying his accuser isn’t an option since Colorado law prohibits identifying victims in charges of sexual assault. Nonetheless, many people know who his accuser is, and others believed they knew when they published the wrong woman’s name and photo on several Internet sites. (Her family is contemplating legal action). In the absence of facts, speculation will take over. Some of it will be accurate, some won’t.

Reinforcing a Stigma

What brought me back to this difficult question were incidents in which media reports listed as "unidentified" women and girls who had been kidnapped once it was learned they also had been sexually assaulted. To me, to cease referring to a rescued kidnapping survivor by name once this information becomes public merely reinforces the stigma of rape and other crimes in which sex is used as a weapon. It takes what should be out-loud outrage and reduces it to a whisper.

The coverage of the kidnapping and sexual assault of two young California women last summer troubled me. The names and photos of the teen-agers, who were abducted at gunpoint from a lovers’ lane, were flashed on television and published in newspapers in an effort to get tips to help the police. Their kidnapper was later shot to death by police and the young women were rescued. After the Kern County sheriff confirmed that they had been raped, a number of news organizations stopped using their names. Shortly after their rescue, one of the teen-agers described the ordeal, and their attempt to kill their abductor, on television, although she did not discuss being raped. Later, both young women, Tamara Brooks and Jacqueline Marris, were interviewed by Katie Couric on "The Today Show."

After the disclosure that the two had been raped, CNN and Fox News Channel blurred their faces when showing videotapes though viewers already knew what they looked like. Their photographs–of one in her cheerleading uniform and the other in a formal gown–had been on newscasts and Web sites since their abduction. With the new information about the sexual assaults, the networks and affiliates in key markets pulled their photos and names from news Web sites and newscasts, although they continued to discuss the case. The two went from being "Tamara and Jacqueline" to "two teen-aged girls."

Elizabeth Smart, missing for months from her home in Utah, was also reported to have been sexually abused. But Smart’s case, and her face, were so famous that there was no retreat to "a suburban Utah teen-ager," especially after she and her parents were invited to the White House.

In May 2001, Thomas Mitchell, editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, felt compelled to write a column explaining his newspaper’s continuing to use the name of a rescued 12-year-old kidnapping victim. "The simple answer is: There is no rewind button on the human memory," he wrote.

Anonymity Following Intense Publicity

Nevertheless, local media covering the June 2003 kidnapping of 9-year-old Jennette Tamayo of San Jose–a crime that had been videotaped by a neighbor’s security camera–dropped her name from the articles after she was reunited with her family. Wall-to-wall coverage of her abduction made it easy for a convenience store employee to recognize Tamayo when she walked into an East Palo Alto store a few days after being abducted and asked to call her mother. But after reporting on her return, the San Jose Mercury News, the San Francisco Chronicle, KTVU-TV and other local media began referring to her as "a 9-year-old San Jose girl," even though they continued to identify her mother by name. The news organizations explained that they were not identifying the girl because she had been a victim of sexual assault, although they had helped make her name known to millions in the period between her abduction and recovery.

The Chronicle readers’ representative, Dick Rogers, defended the decision. He said the paper could have better explained itself by noting that "many experts believe children recover more quickly and successfully from sexual abuse when publicity recedes." But the publicity would have receded anyway as the case ran its course. Removing Tamayo’s name from subsequent accounts seemed to focus more attention on the sexual aspect of the case, not less.

Rape-crisis centers throughout the country have historically urged the media to withhold the names of sexual assault survivors unless they consent to being identified. The news media generally follow those guidelines. But does it make sense to "unidentify" someone? In the name of not stigmatizing sexual assault survivors, doesn’t dropping their names impose an added stigma on a crime victim? And shouldn’t that prompt us to revisit the whole custom of keeping rape survivors in the shadows by not identifying them in news reports about the crimes? In the name of protecting their privacy, aren’t we also expecting them to keep their troubles a secret? Isn’t that an additional burden to carry? And aren’t we limiting the public’s comprehension of the wide range of women and girls who suffer sexual assault by disguising who they are?

Advocates for sexual-assault survivors have worked hard to educate journalists about news coverage’s potential for healing and for harm. They are absolutely right to expect reporters and editors to cover violence against women with intelligence and sensitivity, and periodically to provide in-depth analyses of the problem above and beyond reporting about sex crimes on the police blotter. But I believe that continuing to insist that the press conceal a sexual-assault survivor’s identity does nothing to banish the stereotypes of what types of women and girls suffer sexual assault, nor does it afford crime victims all that much psychological comfort. By figuratively pulling a veil over a survivor’s face, the reporting guidelines make her a whispered-about character in a drama, a place from which it can be harder, not easier, to fight back.

Sheila Gibbons is editor of Media Report to Women, a quarterly news journal of news, research and commentary about women and media. She is also co-author of "Taking Their Place: A Documentary History of Women and Journalism," Strata Publishing, Inc., and of "Exploring Mass Media for A Changing World," Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.



For more information:

Dick Rogers, "News today, unnamed tomorrow," San Francisco Chronicle,
June 16, 2003:

Thomas Mitchell, "A nudge toward a new course of public comity,"
Las Vegas Review-Journal, May 27, 2001: l

Virginians Aligned Against Sexual Assault, "Reporting on Sexual Assault Issues"
(Adobe PDF Format):