A LITTLE MORE THAN eight weeks ago, readers of the Northern Virgina Sun were advised that, from then on, that newspaper would publish the names of rape victims. Understandably, this announcement stirred an angry public response. So far, although the paper has reported on a number of cases involving allegations of rape, it has not revealed the name of a single victim. Moreover, the paper's editor and publisher, Herman J. Obermayer, has since "modified" his initial decision: He now says the Sun will not print the names of juvenile or mentally retarded rape victims or women in cases in which the defendant pleads guilty to rape. Still, Mr. Obermayer continues to argue, as he orginally in a front-page column, that the decision is soundly based on the First Amendment and the public's right to know.
In view of all the local and national concern generated by the original statement, and because the matter is of special interest to readers in this circulation area, we will restate, For Your Information, our own reasons for not publishing the names of rape victims unless they so identify themselves publicly.
To begin with, it isn't a question of whether newspapers have a "right" to publish the names - they most certainly do. The victims are identified in public records, and news orgainzations are free to share this information with the public. Few do, however, because of the particular nature of this crime and its multiple effects on its victims. For one thing, as Stacy R. Taylor noted in an article on these pages the other day, "Society still does not accept the fact that rape is a violent crime." Instead, rape victims are suspected of having been somehow at fault and are shunned or embarrassed by other people.
As prosecutors are quick to note, the fear of having one's name and address published tends to discourage reporting of such crimes. "Publicity is one of the things that seems to disturb the victims most," says Helen F. Fahey, an assistant prosecutor in Arlington. "Rape is, under the best of circumstances, very traumatic . . . let alone discovering all the gory details have been spread across the front page of the local newspaper."
All this, in our view as well as in the view of most newspapers, outweighs any particular usefulness the identifications of victims might have. Just as we refrain from identifying minors charged or tried as juvenile offenders, we will continue to withold the names of rape victims as a matter of policy and taste and because we think the rights of the victim to privacy far outweigh the public's "right to know."