The media generally does not withhold information as a matter of official policy. But, to my knowledge, every major newspaper in the country has an official policy of not reporting the names of accusers in rape or sexual assault cases. (I’m not aware of any paper that has a policy of refusing to report the name of suspects in sexual assault cases.) Though this practice stems from good intentions (a belief that the reporting of accusers’ names will make some real victims unlikely to report the crime), the net effect subtly shades reporting in favor of the suspect’s guilt.
With that extraordinary backdrop in mind—that every newspaper already has a policy of framing coverage of sexual assault cases in such a way that suggests readers should accept the validity of the accuser’s story—comes a recent Chronicle letter from a UNC biostatistics professor named Eric Bair. Bair criticized the Chronicle for using the word “alleged” to describe events in an article detailing the filing of rape charges against a Duke police officer. “Can’t we just say,” the UNC professor mused, “‘she was raped’”?
Bair’s letter explained his reasoning. He conceded that the suspect, Officer Webster Simmons, “is innocent until proven guilty,” and that it was acceptable for the Chronicle to write that the accuser had identified Webster as her alleged attacker. And he further admitted—albeit obliquely—that the Duke campus had first-hand experience with a woman who said “she was raped” having spectacularly lied about the claim.
Nonetheless, Bair described the version of events presented by Simmons’ accuser as “the victim”—not even “alleged” victim—as entitled to belief by the media. (Why newspapers should accept as true what an accuser says about an alleged crime but not trust her identification of the alleged criminal Bair didn’t say.) The Chronicle’s using terms such as “the alleged attack,” “the alleged assault,” “the alleged rape” and “the alleged victim” could be seen as “creating an environment where all women who report a rape are presumed to be liars until they can prove otherwise.” Indeed, continued Bair, “a cynic might suggest that the editors of the Chronicle believe that the reports of rape victims are inherently unreliable.” (A non-cynic might suggest that, in the aftermath of Crystal Mangum’s fantastic lies, the Chronicle has, appropriately, decided to be neutral in reporting the specifics of allegations of rape.)
The policy, Bair concluded, could be seen as “casting doubt on the credibility of rape victims generally or discouraging other women from reporting incidents of rape.” In other words: to not discourage true rape victims from coming forward, newspapers must not only not report their names but must accept everything they say (apart, apparently, from the identity of their alleged assailant) as true.
In response to several pointed comments in the Chronicle discussion thread, Bair held his ground, suggesting that because the Chronicle doesn’t regularly use the word “alleged” to describe other crimes, it shouldn’t do so in describing sexual assault. I e-mailed Bair to ask him if his proposed standard didn’t excuse the (widely condemned) early, credible coverage of the Nifong/Mangum lies. He graciously responded, suggesting that based on his knowledge of the lacrosse case, “there was virtually no physical evidence to corroborate the woman’s [Mangum’s] claims of rape and that the entire thing was the result of a district attorney who was afraid of losing reelection of he didn’t prosecute the case.”
The issue, he continued, is a “difficult” one—balancing the public’s right to know about violent crimes versus protecting the rights of the accused. However, whatever standard a particular newspaper (or the media generally) chooses to adopt, I think it should be applied consistently . . . If the Chronicle were describing every single crime report as an ‘alleged’ incident, I wouldn’t have a major issue with the reporting. However, the fact that they only seem to be doing this in a particular report about rape suggests that the author in question or the editorial board of the Chronicle believe that reports of rape are intrinsically less credible than reports of other crimes. Given that many women are already afraid to report rape cases for fear that they will not be believed, I find that to be very troubling.”
But, of course, the burden of proof about whether a crime occurred in sexual assault differs from that of most other crimes. Take, for instance, murder: police investigate the crime only when they discover a body (or, in highly unusual cases, when they conclude that a missing person was in fact killed). Or robbery: police make a charge only after their investigation discovers that something was, in fact, robbed. Or kidnapping: police make an arrest only after their investigation produces evidence that someone was kidnapped.
With regard to sexual assault, on the other hand, North Carolina law (and that of most other states) requires no corroborating evidence: a person can be convicted of rape solely on the basis of the accuser’s testimony and in-court identification (even if the accused is, say, on a videotape more than a mile away at the time of the alleged “crime”).
Because a lower burden of proof is necessary to bring charges in a sexual assault case, the range of possible defenses is much wider. A suspect accused of murder can’t credibly claim that the victim wasn’t actually murdered. Except in highly unusual cases, a suspect in an armed robbery can’t credibly claim that the victim or institution wasn’t robbed. But in a rape case, a central line of defense can be—and often is—that no crime occurred in the first place. Bair’s standard suggests that newspapers should unequivocally declare that such a line of defense is false, by accepting as true the accuser’s claim of being attacked.
The issue is, as Bair suggests, a “difficult” one. But it is made more difficult by the media’s more general policy in rape cases of not reporting all the facts by withholding information about the accuser’s identity. Given that most sexual assault reporting already tilts toward the accuser, it’s hard to fault the Chronicle for not electing to accept, from the beginning, everything the accuser says (apart from the ID) as absolutely true.
hat tip: Anon.