Is it ever okay to name victims?

Editors question the policy of omitting information in sexual assault and domestic violence cases

In 1990, The Des Moines Register took the rare step of naming a rape victim in a series that won the following year’s Pulitzer Prize for public service. The Pulitzer committee wrote that the series prompted “widespread reconsideration of the traditional media practice of concealing the identity of rape victims.”

The series, about Nancy Ziegenmeyer’s rape and her subsequent experiences with hospitals, police, and attorneys, forced a national conversation centering on who was being protected when victims of sexual violence are kept anonymous, and who suffered.

But that didn’t end up changing the reporting norm. For the most part, news outlets today still steer clear of printing the names of domestic violence victims, a policy that has come back under scrutiny since the video of ousted Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice beating his then-fiancee unconscious hit the news cycle. It’s part of a larger discussion in the industry over individuals’ privacy versus public awareness—the debate has spanned using tweets meant for a specific audience to whether outlets should identify Ebola victims.

In the case of domestic violence reporting, long-time newspaper tradition dictates that cops reporters generally avoid the domestic violence entries on police reports. The same facts that would make an entry on the blotter, or even a story, are present here: an assault, injuries, maybe a hospitalization. But domestic violence cases are overwhelmingly avoided, though, as one would expect, newspaper treatment of the issue varies depending on the size of the paper and its location.

Editors say that their policies protect the abused from further victimization, but some question whether those policies are having the intended effect. By leaving out the names of those enduring domestic abuse, editors at larger publications acknowledge that the victims’ stories are more difficult to tell. At smaller operations, editors said the practice of anonymity is a requirement of domestic violence reporting—they didn’t want to embarrass local residents.

“Naturally, we don’t report the victim’s name, and we have to walk a fine line in giving out details so as not to identify the victim or ruin a pending case/investigation,” said Paul Keane, publisher of the Wayne County (MS) News. “Being in a small, rural Southern town like ours, we have to walk a very, very fine line in regards to this matter because folks are already out there talking about these things and spreading false information.” The paper’s policy is to report on domestic violence when it happens nearby.

In Seattle, Times editor Kathy Best said the paper rarely has occasion to run stories on simple assaults, whether they are domestic in nature or not. The Times does not have community, or “zoned,” sections, where stories of that nature would typically feed a running news blotter. When they do run cases of domestic violence, Best said the paper’s policy is to treat the victims in the same way they would refer to victims of sexual assault, by protecting their names. “We don’t want to revictimize someone,” she said.

At the San Francisco Examiner, managing editor for news Max DeNike had a complicated local story involving domestic violence in April. A Twitter engineer and prominent advocate for women and transgender rights was charged with raping her wife. Dana McCallum was born a man but identifies as female, and she was in the process of filing for divorce.

The Examiner reported the allegations and followed up with a Sunday takeout about the unusual nature of a trans person facing charges of sex abuse; far more often, trans people are victims of abuse. In October, the paper reported that she pleaded guilty to domestic violence and false imprisonment, both misdemeanors. “But you will notice that we never included the victim’s name in any of the stories,” DeNike said.

The context the Examiner added to its Sunday piece is the sort of work academics and advocates say should appear in every piece on domestic violence. But what they’re asking for is usually impossible for reporters on deadline. Academic authors of best-practices guides want reporters making calls to domestic violence experts to contextualize every story or brief; they ask that reporters seek multiple, non-official sources to corroborate or dispute the official narrative; they call for every story to include a PSA-like addendum that points out the frequency of domestic violence.

“The reporting is often from an official source, like police, and the language is often problematic,” said Cathy Ferrand Bullock, who studies the issue at Utah State. “We found (in a 2007 study) multiple instances in Utah newspapers of language that places blame on the victim.”

But according to Geneva Overholser, naming victims is a far cry from blaming them. Obscuring names does a form of harm to society, said Overholser, who was executive editor of the Register during the 1990 series.

“We have not helped society see the realities of domestic violence,” she said. “By naming victims of domestic violence, we may not help the individual person, but we’re protecting way more women from domestic violence by putting it out there.”

“We are not social workers,” Overholser added. “I understand protecting names of children. But women are not children. We have infantilized them.”

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Nigel Duara is an Associated Press reporter in Portland, OR