Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Reuters news reporting unjust to man accused of sexual assault

Language matters, especially in news stories about high profile sexual assault cases. Readers assume that reporters have investigated the case and have a handle on the truth, so the words chosen by the reporter are important because they guide the reader's assessment of the case.

In a Reuters news report by Tom Ramstack about the court martial trial of a Midshipman, the story includes this sentence: "Reuters does not report the names of sexual assault victims."

The story should have stated that "Reuters does not report the names of sexual assault accusers." While the story elsewhere uses the word "alleged" in connection with the supposed sexual assault, Reuters needs to be consistent. By branding the accuser a "victim," Reuters suggests -- subtly or not so subtly -- that the accused is guilty of sexual assault, and that is most unjust. We once persuaded the New York Times to change a story because of the same error. See here.

The American news media often does a very poor job of remaining objective in reporting allegations of sexual assault (the Hofstra debacle is a case in point). The Reuters article about the Midshipman reports on comments made by the prosecutor in his opening statement of the trial. It would have been helpful if Reuters had made it clear to its readers that such comments are not evidence in any sense, and that the prosecution will have the burden of supporting those assertions with actual evidence at trial. Many cases are lost because the prosecution is unable to support allegations made in opening arguments with evidence.

Prof. Alan Dershowitz, a titan of criminal law, has made a persuasive case against anonymity. Here's what he wrote about the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case: "The prosecution presented its case in public as if there were no doubt about the alleged victim’s credibility or the complete guilt of the alleged offender. In fact, one very important implication of the Strauss-Kahn case was this: the press is dead wrong not to publish the names of alleged rape victims. It is absolutely critical that rape be treated like any other crime of violence, that the names of the alleged victims be published along with the names of the alleged perpetrators, so that people who know the victim or know her reputation can come forward to provide relevant information. The whole manner in which this case was handled undercuts the presumption of innocence, and the same goes for many other cases like it. By withholding the name of the alleged victim while publishing perp photos of the alleged assailant, the press conveys a presumption of guilt. The next time I have to defend a case where there’s any chance of a perp walk, I’m going to federal court to demand an injunction against it."

Dershowitz previously said this on the subject: "People who have gone to the police and publicly invoked the criminal process and accused somebody of a serious crime such as rape must be identified." Moreover: "In this country there is no such thing and should not be such a thing as anonymous accusation. If your name is in court it is a logical extension that it should be printed in the media. How can you publish the name of the presumptively innocent accused but not the name of the accuser?"

Feminist Naomi Wolf has many interesting arguments why rape accusers shouldn't be anonymous. Among other things: "It is wrong – and sexist – to treat female sex-crime accusers as if they were children, and it is wrong to try anyone, male or female, in the court of public opinion on the basis of anonymous accusations. Anonymity for rape accusers is long overdue for retirement."