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Newspapers need to be nasty

People expect a lot from newspapers. They should present correct information. They should be unbiased. They should be equitable. They should have funny cartoons. They don't however, have to be nice. They can't afford to be.

Media organizations have traditionally avoided printing the named of alleged rape victims in order to protect their privacy, and lessen the psychological trauma associated with this crime. Printing the names of victims is completely legal, yet so controversial that most news organizations won't publish supposed victims' names unless others do -- a cowardly reason if I ever heard one.

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Several days ago, NBC News, The New York Times and several other media sources released, as a matter of public record, the name of the woman who alleges that she was a victim of rape in the Kennedy compound. The morality of their action has split both the general public and the journalistic communities. Most, however, agree that the papers and TV stations blew it -- that victims' names are sacred, that the reporters acted insensitively, and that they caused undue trauma. Sixty percent of the respondents in one poll thought victim's names were private. Another 30 percent said that newspapers should not be allowed to print the names even if the alleged victims want them to. The existence of this overwhelming majority of opinion is exactly the reason why NBC, The Times and the other press organizations made the right call.

The right to print victims' names should not be infringed upon. It is not surprising that an overwhelming ratio of people blasted the press' actions. Average Americans, almost more than most people in the free world, consistently question the validity of the fundamental liberties which they claim to hold sacred. I once heard of one house-to-house poll in which a pollster showed a random sample of the population the First Amendment to the Bill of Rights and asked them if the text should be incorporated into the Constitution as a new amendment. A majority of the respondents failed to recognize the document and indicated that they thought the article's clauses on free speech were subversive.

Restricting free speech on the grounds of public opinion alone is foolhardy. Free speech was meant to protect the minority. Restricting free speech on the grounds of harassment or slander, however, is dangerous -- dangerous because by such arguments, good intentions can excuse the most horrendous violations of civil liberties and due process.

There is little doubt that revealing the names of victims can cause embarrassment and psychological damage. However, so does revealing the names of the accused, an accepted journalistic practice. If newspapers acted so as to avoided making any people unhappy, The Tech couldn't print a single word, not even a Jim's Journal strip.

who

Matthew H. Hersch, a freshman, is associate opinion editor of The Tech.

Victims, especially rape victims, many are quick to say, are special. Rape has a social stigma attached to it. It's not like other crimes. These are usually the same people, however, who say that sexual assault is a crime of violence on the same level as assault and murder and should be treated with equal seriousness.

Veiling victims in secrecy may save them from embarassment, but it only perpetuates public attitudes about sexual assault -- that victims are "unclean" persons, or "damaged goods" requiring seclusion. If you want a cause to be treated on an equal plane with others, you must surrender the privileges of being different.

Newspapers that claim to be acting in the public interest by not coming forward with names are floating in dangerous seas. Media organizations have a duty to present unbiased news. They are not qualified to pick and choose what is proper for public ears or determine public policy. They must state the facts and avoid unequal coverage, even this means offending some. When torn between two ways of covering a story, editors must choose the most consistent, least judgmental one. As soon as news organizations start making value judgements on crimes, their credibility as objective reporters deteriorates.

Wait a second, hold everything.

Take a look at this: Whenever I use the phrase "alleged victim" you naturally assume the perpetrator did it. How do you know? When you hear about a rape case with in which the alleged victim is not named, what do you think?

He did it, didn't he? If the alleged victim wants her name kept secret, then obviously she is under intense emotional strain. If she's under emotional strain she must have been victimized. Just wait until that trial comes around. Then we can really nail that rapist. Forget about that innocent-until-proven-guilty stuff -- look at the trauma he's caused.

Wait a second. How do you like this scenario: If no one knows names, how do we know that anyone did it? How do we know that the person who would stand and accuse a fellow human being of an atrocity really exists. How do we know that the victim who comes forward will be the one taking the witness stand. How do we know that someone isn't making this whole thing up to sell a new Kennedy book? Maybe the newspaper is making up the whole story? Maybe this is a government plot? How do we know it isn't? There is no supposed victim of this assault for the people to question. Do you trust local police to flawlessly defend truth and justice? Police never hurt innocent people, do they?

Sure, newspapers can be nasty. They have to be to do their job. Liberties and rights are nasty, too. They let us write unpopular things, question the wisdom of our leaders, expose the flaws of our justice system, disrupt order, challenge dogma, and prevent the robot-like efficiency society was supposed to reflect.

I love being nasty.

Restricting free speech on the grounds of public opinion alone is foolhardy.

Sure, newspapers can be nasty. They have to be to do their job.

If no one knows names, how do we know that anyone did it? How do we know that the person who would stand and accuse a fellow human being of an atrocity really exists?

Printing the names of victims is completely legal, yet so controversial that most news organizations won't publish supposed victims' names unless others do -- a cowardly reason if I ever heard one.