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Naming Rape Survivors Is a Terrible Solution to the Rolling Stone Debacle


It’s natural for journalists to search for a better way to cover rape after Columbia Journalism Review issued an extensive report on how thoroughly Rolling Stone botched its reporting of an alleged gang rape of a University of Virginia student. But a problem manifests if journalists overcorrect, by fixing a problem that didn’t exist.

At Quartz, Sonali Kohli suggests reporters solve the issue by restricting anonymous sourcing in rape allegations. This approach would mean only stories about rape survivors who are willing to identify themselves see the light of day. Kohli claims “seeking out survivors who are open about their stories and names helps remove the stigma, and can encourage other women to be open as well.” She proposes a policy aligned with what many outlets have for victims of other crimes, “who may be granted anonymity if they ask for it or if they could face danger, but not as a requirement in the newsrooms’ ethics codes.”  

The key point is writers should still respect a survivor's wishes to remain anonymous. Women can come forward, but when they’re unwilling, publishing their name is an unnecessary requirement for a story to be published. It is possible to verify and fairly report a serious allegation, by taking the steps Rolling Stone never did. Stories need more than one source, which can include documents and—with the victim’s knowledge—contacting the accused or officials. But naming a rape survivor doesn’t in itself enhance a story’s credibility, and instead could damage future reporting of rape. 

One way of destigmatizing rape survival is to share far more stories than writers are telling now, and better reported ones. Insisting on public exposure for the survivors will turn these stories into a rarity, for women who open up about their rapes expose themselves to a world of scrutiny. 

Just as importantly, journalists would limit the pool of stories to survivors who feel their lives can withstand this focus. As Guardian columnist Jessica Valenti tweeted, “If writers only report on rape survivors who agree to be named, the only stories we'll hear are those from 'perfect victims.'"

By all means, journalists should have a conversation about anonymous sourcing. But an industry-wide standard of requiring names specifically for rape allegations, when anonymous sourcing is common practice otherwise, would be an uneven standard that unjustifiably shifts the burden of proof to the survivor. The real burden should be on the writers and editors to report and verify details wherever possible, using outside sources.

Blaming Rolling Stone's fiasco on the anonymity it gave its key source simply gives the magazine an out. The real issue was not in the magazine's source, but in its sourcing.