More than 300,000 women are sexually assaulted each year in America, yet most attacks are not reported to the police, and an even smaller percent are covered in the media.
Experts cite several reasons; fear of reprisal from their attacker, fear of being re-victimized by the police, the court system or defense attorneys. The victims also fear the media.
In the early 1990s, the National Victim Center reported that 84% of rape victims do not report the crime to police. The center further reported that 50% of the rape victims they interviewed would be "a lot more likely to report" to the police if there was a law prohibiting the news media from disclosing their names and addresses.
The center published a report called "Rape in America: A Report to the Nation" and found that an overwhelming majority of women, rape victims and rape service agencies favored legislation that would prohibit media disclosure of rape victims' names. Fear of the media accounted for tens of thousands of people not reporting a rape to their local police departments.
BUT IS THIS FEAR JUSTIFIED?
Most news organizations have a practice of withholding names of rape victims, and two states - Florida and South Carolina - have laws that prohibit the release of victims' names. About half the editors in the country believe a victim's name should only be published if they receive permission from the victim. The other half believes that rape victims' names should only be reported in exceptional cases (examples cited include the William Kennedy Smith trial, and the rape charges leveled at NBA player Kobe Bryant).
The names of Kennedy Smith and Bryant led to media hysteria and the names of both women in those cases were widely published.
In most small towns and cities across the country, the media recognizes the sensitivity of a sexual assault crime and voluntarily withholds a victim's name. Bruce Stanford, who works as legal counsel to the Society of Professional Journalists said, "Journalists exercise enormous self-censorship, but the public cannot see what is not published and never gives the media credit for self restraint."
Journalists across the country have wrestled with this issue for decades. Some editors believe treating rape differently than other violent crimes perpetuates dangerous myths and further damages victims.
Some editors believe it is unfair to name the alleged assailant and keep the alleged victim anonymous, but they continue to do so because they fear community backlash.
Michael Gartner, former president of NBC news, said the media should identify victims of rape. "Rape is a crime in which people tend somehow to blame the victim," he said. "One reason is that the press puts this mystery around it by refusing to name the name."
A new breed of journalist, however, is starting to emerge on the scene. According to a survey in 2000, a study found that a majority of journalism students believe that a rape victim's name should be made public, but only with the victim's consent. The young journalists believed that the stigma attached to sexual assault crimes would lessen if more victims stepped into the open.
Consider the case of Donna Palomba, the woman who launched this website. She was raped in 1993 and for 13 years the local, state and national media have steadfastly referred to her as Jane Doe. Her case eventually drew the attention of CNN, Geraldo Rivera and NBC Dateline, yet not one media outlet published her name, until she gave her permission. Donna stepped out on national television to help remove the stigma surrounding sexual assault. She didn't do anything wrong and she has nothing to be ashamed of. So she decided to step out of the shadows, and into the light. It is part of her healing.
But going public may not be right for everyone.
The National Victim Crime Center came up with a list of rights for victims in dealing with the media. They include the right to:
- say no to an interview
- select a spokesperson or advocate of their choice
- select the time and place for media interviews
- request a specific reporter
- refuse an interview with a specific reporter
- release a written statement through a spokesperson instead of an interview
- not answer inappropriate or insensitive questions
- speak to one reporter at a time
- not answer reporter's questions during a trial
- demand a correction when inaccurate information is reported
- grieve in private.
A full understanding of rights and options will allow sexual assault victims to make the right individual choices moving forward.