NEW YORK - In hindsight, it seems unfair. For nearly a year, three Duke lacrosse players were publicly identified as alleged sexual assailants, while their accuser - whose claims are now discredited - was shielded by anonymity.
But that double standard is the way of American journalism, and is unlikely to change any time soon, even though the Duke case is provoking a reassessment of the practice.
Although the accuser has now been widely identified - on the Internet, in the major newspapers serving the Raleigh-Durham area in North Carolina, and elsewhere - advocates for sexual-assault victims hope and expect the media to continue its voluntary, long-standing practice of not reporting the names of alleged victims who prefer anonymity.
"The Duke case is such an aberration," said Scott Berkowitz, board president of the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. "After there was a thorough investigation and a conclusion that no crime took place, the accuser stops being a victim and it's perfectly appropriate to identify her," he said. "But I'd hope the press doesn't rush to change their overall policy on this - that could have the short- term effect of discouraging certain victims from coming forward." Karen Pomer, an activist in California on behalf of victims since her own rape at gunpoint in 1995, said it remained daunting enough for victims to report an assault without the added factor of knowing they might be publicly identified. "Even though the man who assaulted me is now locked up for the rest of his life, there were times I really regretted coming forward - it's not an easy thing to do," she said. "It's extremely rare that a woman comes forward and falsely accuses someone of assault." Pomer recalled police treating her with disrespect and disbelief. And Berkowitz said many victims fear the loss of their privacy if they go public: "When they walk down the aisle of the supermarket, they don't want people thinking, â€˜There goes the rape victim.'" Defense attorneys have a different perspective. Some hope the Duke case might prompt the media to review their current practices and switch to policies of identifying accusers as well as defendants. "The criminal courts are not there to make victims more comfortable - they are there to do justice to the accused," said Martin Pinales, president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. "Newspapers don't need to be politically correct, they need to be factually accurate," Pinales said. "The First Amendment is not there for the press to say, â€˜We're going to abide by self-imposed restrictions' - the First Amendment is there for the public's right to know." Asked whether abandoning anonymity might dissuade some victims from coming forward, Pinales said: "If anyone is a true victim of crime, they have nothing to be ashamed of." He suggested that prosecutors' offices should employ victims-rights advocates to help them deal with problems in this regard. In the Duke case, virtually all major media outlets declined to identify the accuser as the saga unfolded. But that unanimity broke down Wednesday when North Carolina's attorney general dismissed all remaining criminal charges against the three lacrosse players and declared them innocent. The Charlotte Observer and The News & Observer of Raleigh swiftly posted articles online with the woman's name and photograph. The New York Post carried the woman's photo on its front page Thursday, with the tabloid headline, "The Duke Liar." But other major media outlets, including The Associated Press and The New York Times, opted to continue withholding the name of the woman, a 28-year-old single mother of three who has worked a stripper, attended college and in 1996 filed a rape complaint that never led to charges. The AP's managing editor, Mike Silverman, said the decision to continue protecting the woman's anonymity was reached after considerable discussion in the newsroom. "Ultimately, we didn't see a compelling reason to reverse our practice," Silverman said. He said AP was continuing to try to talk to the woman and report the story and would review the decision further if developments warrant. He also said the AP, perhaps in concert with other media organizations, would re-examine the anonymity policy on a broad basis, distinct from the particulars of the Duke case. Melanie Sill, executive editor of The News & Observer, said her paper also would review its policy. "It's worth taking a fresh look at, although I can't say we'll come down in different place," Sill said. Some states have passed laws making it illegal to report the name of a sexual assault victim, but those laws have been struck down when challenged, and the practice of withholding victims' names is, in effect, an optional courtesy extended by the media. The practice has been undermined somewhat in the Internet age as accusers' names are spread online even while traditional media withhold them. Joshua Marquis, the district attorney in Astoria, Ore., and a vice president of the National District Attorneys Association, said prosecutors do not set out to keep the names of adult crime victims secret, but he commended the media for its voluntary policy. "It's essentially self-restraint," he said. "There is still enormous stigma to being the victim of a sexual assault." Kim Gandy, a former prosecutor and now president of the National Organization for Women, said she hoped the media would not change its practice because of the Duke case: "The purpose is not only to protect the person making the criminal complaint - it's to offer some sense of protection for any woman who might need to do so in the future," she said. "Once one woman is exposed, regardless of the reason, it has a chilling effect for every other woman."comments powered by Disqus