Should the Presumption of Innocence Influence How Media Report on Allegations of Heavily Stigmatized Crimes?
- Greggory Moore
“To name a rape victim is to guarantee that whenever somebody hears her name, that somebody will picture her in the act of being sexually tortured,” writes Helen Benedict in her 1992 book Virgin or Vamp: How the Press Covers Sex Crimes. “To expose a rape victim to this without her consent is nothing short of punitive.”
That school of thought has long dominated press coverage of rapes, with most media outlets refusing to disclose the names of alleged victims.
Such a self-imposed restriction always made sense to me. But at the same time I wondered: Why is it okay to print the name of the alleged rapist? We live under a judiciary that presumes everyone innocent until proven guilty. Moreover, because our society is now such that there is far more stigma attached to being a rapist than to being a victim of rape, isn’t there at least as much reason also to withhold the names of accused rapists?
This conundrum came to mind when I came across last week’s Long Beach Post story “Rocco’s Deli Owner Arrested on Sexual Assault, Drug Charges.” It’s not that the Post did anything out of the ordinary in reporting this story—the same basic story was published by the Press-Telegram and KTLA—but it raises the question of how, in a society where those accused of crimes are initially supposed to enjoy a presumption of innocence, the media should handle allegations with the foreknowledge that naming names is likely to damage the accused.
That seems already to have happened to Rocco’s owner Steve DeSisto and his business.” REALLY?!” wrote one Facebook user who shared the Post article. “I f-ing luv that place. ARGH.”
To be clear, if DeSisto is guilty of the alleged sexual assault(s), as far as I’m concerned, any stain on his name and damage to his business is well earned. But what if he’s not guilty? What if he is the victim of false allegations? We know such things happen, however rarely. Just ask former Long Beach Poly student Brian Banks, who spent five years in prison based on false allegations of rape.
It’s easy to make the argument that the arrest of the owner of a prominent Long Beach business is newsworthy in Long Beach, at least. But wouldn’t it be equally newsworthy if the owner of a prominent Long Beach business were raped? And yet in the latter case most media outlets would withhold naming the victim. The reason? Because such reportage might damage an innocent person. But if we’re presuming the accused is innocent, why doesn’t the same rationale apply?
After generations of shaming women who alleged sexual assault, in the court of public opinion we now generally give the benefit of the doubt to the accuser, which leaves the accused shamed, shunned, and worse. Just deserts for the guilty. But if DeSisto is innocent, I’d feel pretty guilty were I the KTLA Web producer who opens his article on DeSisto’s arrest by saying, “A Long Beach man arrested Wednesday in connection with the sexual assault of a woman in 2013 may have additional victims, police said”—a sentence construction in which it’s a given that DeSisto is guilty of the 2013 assault, since the “may” refers only to his having additional victims. Certainly this is not what Ryan intended to communicate, but phraseology influences both conscious and unconscious perception. And in the case of reporting on terrible allegations, you probably can’t be too careful.
Unfortunately, the Long Beach Police Department Media Relations Detail wasn’t too careful in this respect, pretty much leading Ryan in this direction. “The sexual assault occurred in August 2013 after the suspect met the victim in a local bar and she became intoxicated,” says the press release, saliently leaving out the word “allegedly.”
None of the media outlets reporting on this story are making independent allegations, but rather simply passing along the information provided to them by police. And whatever quibbles there may be with the phrasing in the press release, at bottom the L.B.P.D. is just passing along public information (all non-sealed arrest reports are available to the public). And the facts are the facts: DeSisto was arrested and charged with sexual assault (among other things), and reporting such facts is within the bounds of what is generally considered acceptable. But does the status quo leave falsely accused persons hanging out to dry for the public to condemn?
Perhaps that’s neither the police’s nor the media’s problem. Perhaps it’s the responsibility of every reader to presume the innocence of every accused person. But as we all know—perhaps particularly those of us in the media—the world doesn’t work this way. We know that, more often than not, people presume those charged with something like sexual assault must have done it.
Does that mean police and media should change the way they pass along information pertaining to criminal allegations, at least those concerning crimes whose perpetrators are strongly stigmatized by the general public? To be frank, I don’t know. But considering the stakes, it might be worth further consideration.