, Salem, MA


July 25, 2009

Identifying the accuser in Roethlisberger rape case

When Ben Roethlisberger, star quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers, was accused of rape this week, news outlets faced an ethical dilemma on whether to name his accuser.

Many of them — including the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and The Associated Press — did not. They cited policies protecting the names of sexual assault victims, proven or not.

Many others, however, published the accuser's name and photograph. The entertainment Web site TMZ ran a gallery of pictures. They made no effort to hide her identity.

This was unusual. More often than not, the media walk lockstep in protecting the identity of alleged victims of rape even though it is commonplace to publish victims' names of other types of violence.

The traditional reason: A social stigma is attached to rape, and victims who are sexually assaulted may thus be reluctant to report it to the police if they know their names will become public. Thus, the thinking goes, they are entitled to special consideration.

But Roethlisberger is an atypical rape case. The charges against him were filed by his accuser in a civil lawsuit a year after the alleged assault occurred at Harrah's Hotel in Lake Tahoe, Nev. They did not evolve from a criminal complaint, the usual source for rape allegations.

This put the case in a different legal and, I would argue, ethical arena.

In criminal rape cases, charges against the accused are normally brought close to the time when the accuser says the assault occurred. The charges are often supported by medical examination of the victim, a police investigation of the details and evidence collected by authorities. The victim normally does not want her name published.

So the press dutifully shields the identity of the accuser but not that of the accused, a tradition critics call inequitable but a practice the public overwhelmingly embraces whenever asked about it.

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