The Shelton-Mason County Journal in Washington State prides itself on reporting every detail of community life–including the naming of complainants, even if they are children, in all sexual-assault trials, the Seattle Times says. The newspaper, circulation 9,300, may be only one in the nation that regularly names accused and accuser in sexual-assault cases.
After community protests, stories of victims’ anguish over the publicity and an unending stream of letters to the editor, the Yimes says that the questions still come: Should the media cover sexual assaults differently from other violent crimes? Is it fair for the media to name the accused and accuser in every criminal matter but sexual assault? Will victims hesitate to report sex crimes if they expect their names to be publicized? Does anonymity shield the person bringing the charge from further trauma or only add to a societal stigma? Does it fuel an antiquated, paternalistic attitude toward victims?
Editor Charles Gay says, “I just can’t bring myself to be part of a journalistic fraternity that says there’s something wrong with you and we’re not going to print your name …I want to get rid of the stigma, not perpetuate it.”
Said Margaret Spikes of Shelton’s Center for Advocacy & Personal Development: “This is a small town. When someone here is raped, or is making the accusation of sexual assault, to have that name in the paper and everybody talking about you, looking at you when you walk down the street, that adds to the pain the person is going through.” A state prison is the largest employer in the town of 8,500.
Nationally, newspapers have generally stayed away from naming complainants in sexual-assault cases. The Winston-Salem Journal in North Carolina once published names but stopped a few years ago when an editor who backed the practice moved on. Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, Fla., said most papers “don’t do a very good job of covering rape, and they know it.” It would be disingenuous, she said, to start arguing that a new policy of naming victims “would bring understanding.”