The Jury Talks Back

4/5/2009

To name or not to name: the media’s victim identity conundrum

Filed under: Uncategorized — aunursa @ 10:16 am

Nine years ago Midsi Sanchez was walking home from school in Vallejo, Calif. when she was abducted off the street.  Immediately news accounts broadcast her name and face throughout California in an attempt to help locate the girl and her captor.  Two days later, Midsi escaped from the car in which she had been chained and flagged down a passing truck driver.  Nationwide reports announced her daring escape, and continued to include photos of the brave 8 year-old.

Then it came out that her tormentor, one Curtis Dean Anderson, had sexually assaulted her over the course of the 44-hour captivity.  (Investigators also learned that Anderson had kidnapped and murdered another Vallejo girl eight months prior.)  The media quietly removed the name of Midsi Sanchez from all subsequent reports.  At the time I found this attempt to put the genie back in the bottle rather striking, since it ws the media that had made her recognizable to millions of readers and viewers.  (Midsi, now 16, was identified in a San Jose Mercury News article on Saturday.  The teenager met with the Cantu family, whose 8 year-old daughter Sandra has been missing for more than a week.)

I know in some jurisdictions the law prohibits publicizing the identities of sexual assault victims.  But in other cases the media make a concious decision to hide the identity, apparently in order to spare the victim additional shame and humiliation.  I believe this decision is a misguided one.

I agree with Women’s eNews correspondent Sheila Gibbons, who wrote, “[T]o cease referring to a rescued kidnapping survivor by name once this information [about a sexual assault] becomes public merely reinforces the stigma of rape and other crimes in which sex is used as a weapon.  It takes what should be out-loud outrage and reduces it to a whisper.”  Gibbons referenced a similar case in which news organizations flashed the names and photos of two California teenagers who were kidnapped.  Following the rescue their faces were blurred when it was learned that they had been raped.  (During the rescue the kidnapper was shot to death by police.)

In some instances this practice presumes that a crime was committed when it may not be the case.  Take the infamous Duke lacrosse rape case.  Reade Seligmann, Collin Finnerty, and David Evans suffered irreparable harm to their reputations, though they were found to be completely innocent.  Ironically the Duke students were the victims and their accuser Crystal Mangum was the guilty party, yet the media assumed it was Mangum’s identity that needed to be protected.

I admit that I cannot fully understand the position of sexual assault victims themselves, as I don’t personally know someone who has suffered such an invasive attack.  I would be interested in hearing such perspectives.  I am heartened by the attitude expressed by one victim, Jerri Kennedy, way back in 1992.  As described by America’s Most Wanted host John Walsh in his book No Mercy, Jerri was 15 when she was brutally beaten, raped, and nearly choked to death by career criminal Terry Hart in Oklahoma City.  When her case was to be profiled on AMW, the show’s producers offered to have her tell her story with her face hidden, so that she could be heard, but not recognized.  Jerri, however, wanted to send a message to other victims.  She said that it was important that she not hide in the shadows.  She wasn’t the one who had to hide — Terry Hart was.


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