Tuesday, September 17, 2013

When rape charges are dropped, it's not appropriate to call the accuser 'the victim'

Rape charges were dropped against a University of North Alabama football player, but the Associated Press still refers to the young man's accuser as "the victim."

Words matter, especially in newspapers. If the accuser is a "victim," the accused must be a rapist, but that's simply not an appropriate description in this or in many similar cases where the same mistake is made. The word choice is unjust to the young man accused of rape. It is not a valid excuse to parrot terminology used by the police -- and law enforcement is notorious for referring to accusers as "victims" -- if it isn't appropriate. Reporters are not stenographers for law enforcement. Calling the accuser a "victim" is no more appropriate than calling the young man she accused "the falsely accused student." Our guess is that the Associated Press would never do that. So why does the Associated Press happily adorn the accuser with the mantle of victimhood even after charges are dropped, without furnishing a scrap of evidence demonstrating the description is accurate? The AP's reporters are not that stupid.

Once, we caught the New York Times making the same kind of error. The Times ran a story on-line about the rape charge against Lawrence Taylor. The story initially included this sentence: "The Journal News reported that the victim was a runaway from the Bronx . . . ." We complained to the Times reporter credited with writing the story, and immediately the line above was changed to the following: "The Journal News reported that the girl was a runaway from the Bronx . . . ."

Some sexual assault victims' advocates openly encourage calling accusers "victims." Jackson Katz once penned a carnival curiosity of a piece advocating that we stop referring to Nafissatou Diallo, who accused Dominique Strauss-Kahn, of rape, as exactly what she was, DSK's "accuser." Katz declared: "Every time someone calls her an 'accuser' they undermine her credibility and bolster his."  Katz's rationale for this fantastic epiphany was nothing more than a cavalcade of worn out, politicized incantations, proving once more that it is possible to say nothing with words. Katz's solution to the "problem" he manufactured from whole cloth? "It's simple: refer to the complaining witness in a rape case as 'the victim.'"

But even Katz grudgingly accepted a "compromise" term between "accuser" and "victim": "alleged victim."

That's more than the Associated Press is willing to do, even after rape charges are dropped.

Thankfully, a lot of reporters get it right. In this morning's news, reporter Nick Bechtel, writing about a sex-felony case for a Marion, Ohio paper, called the alleged victim "the alleged victim."