Sticking with longstanding tradition, news outlets, including The Washington Post, have declined to report the woman’s name, even as her credibility and the case against Strauss-Kahn have begun to unravel.
The media’s fidelity to anonymity was pushed even further on Tuesday by the alleged victim’s filing of a libel lawsuit against the New York Post for describing her as a prostitute. The woman wasn’t identified in mainstream news accounts of the lawsuit, even though she initiated the action and it does not involve the rape allegations.
The no-name tradition, which dates back at least a century among newspapers, reflects the media’s assumption that public disclosure of sexual assault would cause additional pain for the alleged victim. It’s a prohibition generally shared by victim’s rights groups and criminal prosecutors, who say the stigma of sexual assault is so grave that accusers should be spared public exposure.
“For a person who has already been violated once, all the media exposure violates them again,” says Mai Fernandez, executive director of the National Center for Victims of Crime in Washington. “We have a strong tradition of defendant’s rights. But if you’re a victim, you have fewer rights than an accused person.”
But that view has been challenged as the case against Strauss-Kahn, the former head of the International Monetary Fund, has weakened amid prosecutors’ disclosures about the New York hotel maid who brought the charges against him.
Defense lawyer and legal scholar Alan Dershowitz argues that withholding victims’ names in such high-profile cases gives an unfair advantage to the accuser. While Strauss-Kahn was being paraded in handcuffs before television cameras and being subjected to tabloid headlines like “Le Perv,” his alleged victim has remained anonymous for weeks in the American press.
Disclosure of the woman’s name on day one, Dershowitz says, might have balanced the picture — by drawing out witnesses or relevant information about the woman. “If it had,” he says, “by day three all the information would be out, and this man’s reputation might not have been destroyed.”
Anonymity is no guarantee of easy treatment in the press. In a profile of the woman who accused basketball star Kobe Bryant of sexual assault, one California newspaper, the Orange County Register, raised questions about her mental stability — without naming her. An infamous New York Times story about the accuser in the William Kennedy Smith rape case also presented an unflattering portrait. The story broke with longstanding tradition at the Times by naming the woman.
Dershowitz’s view is shared by only a small minority of traditional journalists. Among them is Geneva Overholser, the former editor of the Des Moines Register, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1991 for chronicling the story of rape victim Nancy Ziegenmeyer.
“We in journalism are not in a position to choose who deserves our protection,” says Overholser, a former Post ombudswoman who is the director of the Annenberg school for communication and journalism at the University of Southern California. “It’s simply not appropriate to withhold the names in cases in which both sides stand to lose a lot.”
Given widespread disclosure of the alleged victim’s name on Web sites and in the French media, Overholser says, the traditional media’s position has become increasingly untenable. “If you want to know her name, you can find it,” she says. “This is really a conceit” by mainstream news sources.
Overholser further argues that leaving out such an important fact from a story violates one of the basic rules of journalism. “We name names in our stories,” she says. “We know how awful it is to be a rape victim,” but shielding an alleged victim from public disclosure may contribute to the very stigma that anonymity seeks to avoid. “Sunlight,” she says, “is the best disinfectant.
“We’re still holding onto this patriarchal foolishness that it’s the right thing to do,” Overholser says. “It’s not the right thing to do.”
Dershowitz is among those saying it’s time for a change. Writing in the Daily Beast last week, he argued, “By withholding the name of the alleged victim while publishing perp photos of the alleged assailant, the press conveys a presumption of guilt. The next time I have to defend a case where there’s any chance of a perp walk, I’m going to federal court to demand an injunction against it.”