The shame of naming DSK's accuser

If you have watched France 24, in English, with any regularity over the past couple of months you will have little trouble reeling off a slew of pertinent (and not-so-pertinent) facts about the Dominique Strauss-Kahn affair.

You have likely committed to memory the name and location of the hotel where the alleged sexual assault took place; the number of the capacious luxury suite where it allegedly occurred; and perhaps even the precise time of day at which Strauss-Kahn checked out of said suite on Saturday, May 14 and hopped a taxi...en route to a pre-departure lunch with his daughter, Camille.

Your knowledge may extend to certain details about Strauss-Kahn's accuser: she is a 32-year-old African immigrant, originally from Guinea, who lived in the Bronx and had been working as a chambermaid in a luxury midtown Manhattan hotel for several years.

What you almost certainly won't know, as a viewer of France 24's English-language output, is the accuser's name.

That's because neither I nor, to the best of my knowledge, any of my anglophone colleagues will utter it, wittingly, on air.

That decision is both deliberate, and personal. 


It is driven not by editorial diktat (our bosses, in fact, have no problems with our naming Strauss-Kahn's accuser on air), but rather by a journalistic ethic inculcated in us by the "anglo-saxon" media cultures from which many of us hail.

Zap over to our French-language channel, however, and be prepared to enter a parallel broadcast universe.


There, Strauss-Kahn's alleged victim is named with the same insouciance as one might tick off the name of the day's stage winner in the Tour de France cycling race.

The contrast can be startling to anyone who has worked in newsrooms where naming alleged rape victims - or even attempted rape victims - is generally verboten as a matter of principle.


To be sure, there is no formal ban against media organisations naming rape victims in the United States.


But most newspapers and TV and radio outfits choose to refrain from voluntarily outing the identities of victims, alleged or otherwise.


During a recent interview with Elaine Sciolino, a Paris correspondent for The New York Times, we managed to discuss the latest twists and turns in the Strauss-Kahn affair, and its implications for gender relations in France, without once naming his accuser.


It can be done: 





Many of the decisions not to name rape victims in the US media date back to the rise of "rape crisis centers" in the 1970s. Prior to that, naming victims was a common, if not universal, practice.


The basic argument against naming is a standard one: rape is different in nature from other crimes, and many victims, despite some advances, are still blamed for what happened to them.


The stigma attached to rape can also act as a powerful disincentive for many women (and men) to come forward and report it. One US study found that almost nine out of 10 women would be disinclined to report a rape if they feared their names would be outed by the news media.


In the case of Strauss-Kahn's accuser, many articles alluded to the fact that rape or attempted rape are near-taboo topics in her conservative Guinean culture - and that being associated with such an act, even as a potential victim, is grounds for being ostracised by your community. 


This is not to say there are any moral absolutes in the "naming" debate.


Those who favor printing or broadcasting victims' identities argue that it is not the journalist's role to be a social worker.


Some say that identifying victims is part of ensuring journalistic balance. What's really important, the argument runs, is that the reporting itself is fair and accurate.


While that is a noble sentiment, I can't help but feel that there is something gratuitous about the mediatic naming of victims. Nor can I discern any compelling public interest in doing so.


On the other hand, I can clearly make the opposite case: that naming victims, and splashing their photos across the front page, as France's Le Monde ignominiously did earlier this week with Strauss-Kahn's accuser, feeds our voyeuristic cravings and little more.


Sure, there are cases in which victims may consent to be being publicly identified. But those remain the exception, rather than the rule.


In a week when everyone is waxing indignant over the scruples-proof practices of Britain's tabloid media, perhaps a little more indignation is in order over the way much of the French media has outed Strauss-Kahn's accuser.


It's a shame that the "Everyone is doing it" mentality is so pervasive in the French media that most journalists here see little need for any ethical debate on the issue.


Those who suggest there may be room for such a debate open themselves up to being pilloried as righteous, or smug.


For me, this case remains "The People of the State of New York vs. Dominique Strauss-Kahn" - even if France 24 allows me to be a lot more specific.







Comments or opinions expressed on this blog are those of the individual contributors only, and do not necessarily represent the views of FRANCE 24. The content on this blog is provided on an "as-is" basis. FRANCE 24 is not liable for any damages whatsoever arising out of the content or use of this blog.
Well put. Thank you for the explanation, Mr. Herbert.

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