Topic: Media

Protecting the Victimizer

The old joke, of course, is that “legal ethics” is an oxymoron, but it is a joke born of ignorance (all right, of ignorance and too many unethical lawyers): lawyers have the most carefully considered system of ethics, and one of the most scrupulously enforced, of any profession. Not so journalists, whose ethical instincts (increasingly documented on the Ethics Scoreboard) frequently leave readers scratching their heads.

For example, how do you explain this? Background: In Howard County, Maryland, a high school girl, a freshman, accused three male students of raping her. The names of all three young men were printed in the local press, including The Washington Post. The accuser, however, remained shielded from publicity; her name was not published, in accordance with a common policy based more on political correctness than logic or ethics. In a nation where there is a presumption of innocence, somehow it is regarded as appropriate to print the names of men accused of rape, but inappropriate to publicize the name of their accusers. The theory behind this widespread and inequitable policy, according to conventional journalistic wisdom, is that withholding the alleged victim’s identity encourages future victims to come forward. It also presumes that it is somehow more traumatic to be revealed as a rape victim than as an accused rapist, a dubious assertion at best.

In the Maryland case, the accuser recanted, and all evidence indicates that the sex was consensual. Still, the local press has continued to shield the accuser, now revealed to be a fraudulent accuser, while publicizing the names of the boys falsely accused!

What is the logic of this policyÂ…to encourage more phony rape charges? Even if one agrees with the ethically dubious practice of withholding the names of purported rape victims, one has to be puzzled at the unfairness of a policy that protects the identity of the victimizer while letting her victims spend days in the news labeled as criminals. The young woman apparently lied, and harmed the reputations of three people in the process. She has no right to be shielded or protected in any way from the fruit of her own duplicity. This is not a tough call. Why did the press get it wrong? Perhaps it is because it is paying more attention to the policy than to the rationale behind it. Perhaps it is because even easy ethical problems routinely stump the deep thinkers of the Fifth Estate.

If there is a journalist out there who has a counter-argument, Ethics Scoreboard is eager to know what it is.

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