College of Liberal Arts & Sciences

Overholser favors naming rape victims

Media coverage of rape allegations is selling the victim short.

That's the view of Geneva Overholser, former editor of the Des Moines Register, who visited the Greenlee School and lectured at Iowa State on March 8.

She argued that withholding names only further stigmatizes rape victims. By printing victims' names, she said, rape becomes like any other crime in which the accuser and accused are both in the public spotlight.

Not printing the accusers' names has "enabled us to further keep rape in the shadows," said Overholser, a professor at the Missouri School of Journalism. "Sunlight is the best disinfectant."

An outspoken critic of the strict "no names" policy practiced by most newspapers, Overholser believes openness is in the best interests of the victim, the accused, and the public at large.

The former Washington Post ombudsman and The New York Times editorial board member said, "It doesn't seem to have worked not to report them."

Overholser became involved in the issue in 1989, while editor at the Des Moines Register. A Grinnell woman named Nancy Ziegenmeyer called one day, wanting to share the story of her rape.

"She didn't want to shut up about it," Overholser recalled.

Overholser explained that rape victims are often told to keep quiet. This contributes to their stigmatization because they are made to feel they have done something wrong that needs to be hidden.

Des Moines Register reporter Jane Schorer wrote a five-part series describing Ziegenmeyer's ordeal. The "stark portrayal of rape" and its impact immediately got a huge response.

"We told a powerful story that hadn't been told often enough," Overholser said. The story won a Pulitzer Prize in 1991 and sparked a nationwide debate about the ethics of "naming names."

Overholser's speech, "Name the Accuser and the Accused: Reconsidering the Coverage of Rape," focused on two words: truth and fairness.

Newspapers, she said, lose credibility when they withhold information or don't tell both sides of the story. It is the media's responsibility to report all events, not to decide whose names should be included or excluded.

She said it is unfair that only the names of the accused are made public in cases of rape. Often, the public has made up its mind as to their guilt or innocence far in advance of court decisions.

"Do we believe that people are innocent until proven guilty?" she asked the crowd of about 175 from the Iowa State and Ames community attending her talk at the Memorial Union.

Overholser did recognize several exceptions to printing names, such as matters of life and death and cases involving children, either as victims or perpetrators.

Children "are in a very special place in our society" and they need adult protection, Overholser said. But, she added, "women are not children."

Overholser also stressed that she wasn't on a mission to "out" rape victims. Nancy Ziegenmeyer came forward and requested her name be printed with the story. For now, Overholser said, victims' names should only be included with their consent. She hopes to "gradually move towards a time" when the stigma of rape is reduced and it wouldn't be seen as cruel to use the names.

Media responsibility and open records are important to moving forward. Overholser called recent efforts by Des Moines Police to keep victims' names off official records "blatantly unconstitutional."

The first step in solving any problem is identifying it, Overholser said. Many newspapers allow the deceased's family to write the obituary, which can leave out unpleasant causes of death. In earlier years, many newspapers refused to attribute death to cancer of AIDS.

"We need to say suicide when young people kill themselves because that is how we know there is a plague amongst us," she added.

Overholser also recognized that "mainstream media are not the gatekeepers they once were" because of increased popularity of the Internet.

She expressed concern that newspapers and radio news, as well as other types of media, are "in the hands of smaller and smaller" groups of people.

"Who will report it if the owners don't want you to know?" she asked.

Last updated: April 21, 2004

-- Wed, 21 Apr 2004 --