Opinion: The Media Should Stop Shielding Names of Rape Victims

Despite our efforts to keep secret her identity, the hotel worker who accused Dominique Strauss-Kahn of sexual assault has come forward, making her name and her facepublicly known two months after she says he attacked her in the Manhattan hotel where she worked as a chambermaid.  The alleged attack occurred on May 14.  She came forward on July 27, making a public appearance at a cultural center in Brooklyn and thanking her supporters.

It was the 32-year-old's first public appearance since breaking her silence, in interviews with ABC and Newsweek.

It's nearly unheard of for an alleged sex assault victim to speak publicly and it's not clear what effect her decision to come forward has had on the District Attorney Cyrus Vance's view of the case.  Strauss-Kahn is due back in court tomorrow and it is being widely reported today that Vance will to dismiss the case, at that time, given the issues that have arise with Diallo's credibility, since she first leveled her charges against Strauss-Kahn.

Whatever the outcome, Diallo’s decision to come forward raises an important question for those of us who cover these cases and choose to shield the identity of adults who allege charges of sexual assault: Should we protect their identity?

Of course, every victim is unique, which makes the impact of crime unique. A major concern of rape and sexual assault victims is having their identity exposed through the news media. Confidentiality is important to victims and many don’t report rapes and sexual assaults for fear of others learning about the crime. That is why most media have policies to protect the identity of rape victims, and some states have even passed laws that prevent anyone from publishing or broadcasting information that identifies sexual offense victims. 

Recently, when I appeared on the PBS program Need to Know to discuss the Strauss-Kahn case, I was roundly criticized by at least one viewer for suggesting we reconsider this policy. 

I could not disagree more with her. Rape makes you even more aware of

gender imbalance of power in our world. Please think it through again.

One "uncredible" witness does not make rape less ghastly. Nor does it

mean it didn't happen. Surely, as a lawyer, you don't believe that the

truth comes out in court? It is, sadly, just the best we can do in our

society. Many innocents get convicted, many guilty get set free, as you

know.

It is precisely because I am a lawyer, and after many years of practice and observation of our system, that I suggest we reconsider.

First, as the viewer correctly points out, we often get it wrong.  We convict the innocent and while the guilty go free.  Why, then, should we presume the guilt of the accused? Should we presuppose the accuser is, in fact, telling the truth, when she says she has been sexually assaulted?  Of course, not. Yet, when we decline to name a rape victim that is precisely what we are doing.  We are accepting that she is in fact a victim.  And, therefore, the accused is the rapist.

Second, rape is not a sex crime.  It is a crime of violence.  Rape is one of the most under-reported crimes in America. Only 18 percent of forcible rape cases are reported to law enforcement, and only 16 percent of forcible rape cases among college students are reported.  In some cases it is because of fear of retaliation.  But by and large, victims don’t report sexual assault because they don’t want family, friends or co-workers to know about the crime, or because they are concerned about being blamed. 

Why is this?  There is still a societal stigma associated with these crimes that can result in blaming the victim.  Sex crimes occupy a unique place in the criminal justice system. It is the only criminal category that casts harsh judgments on the accused and the accuser. When we keep secret the victims’ identities, we may mean well; but, in my view, we only contribute to the cycle of stigmatization by suggesting there is something of which to be ashamed. It is time to treat these crimes like any other acts of violence.  When a woman is sexually assaulted, she has nothing to be ashamed of.  We need not shame her all over again.

Finally, we in the news business are not supposed to take sides in a story.  When we name the accused, but not the accuser, we are taking sides, plain and simple.  Even the most dedicated of victims’ rights advocates must be able to see this dilemma for the journalist working on these stories.  

The Duke Lacrosse case is, perhaps, the best recent example.  We never knew the name of the accuser in that case.  Most of us still cannot name her. Would you recognize her, if she walked into your living rooms?  Yet, day in, and day out, we heard the names of the three young men accused of brutally raping a stripper in their bathroom.  We saw their pictures on the front pages of our newspapers, and on the nightly newscasts, for more than a year.  Their lives were turned upside down.  Of course, we know now, they were innocent. DNA proved it. The District Attorney in that case has since been disbarred for prosecutorial misconduct in the case.   

For the course of our coverage, however, the news media (confused and conflicted by the complicated issues of race, gender and class in the case) essentially endorsed one side of the story, through our choices about who we would name – the alleged perpetrators -- and who we would not – the person who alleged the charges against them – delivered a narrative that sided with her version of the facts.  Better to have named nobody. 

The Strauss-Kahn case presents similar issues of race, gender and class and again we struggle with how to present the facts.  But here, the woman at the center of the case has taken control of her own story.  As she told Good Morning America:  “I have to be in public. I have to, for myself. I have to tell the truth."

Perhaps Nafissatou Diallo understands our system of justice – and about human nature – better than we do.  Perhaps it is time we move forward in the way we think about adult victims of sexual assault.  After all, these women must ultimately stand up and name their accuser in court.  Like Diallo, they can find their voice and tell own their story. They don’t need us to tell it for them.

Jami Floyd is an attorney, broadcast journalist and legal analyst for cable and network news, and is a frequent contributor to WNYC Radio. She is former advisor in the Clinton administration and served as a surrogate for the Obama campaign on legal and domestic policy issues. You can follow her on twitter.