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Story Publication logo October 30, 2009

Liberia: In journalism, when do you identify rape victims?


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Glenna Gordon and Jina Moore look at Liberia's efforts to restore law and justice -- for victims of...

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Multiple Authors

Jina Moore and Glenna Gordon, for the Pulitzer Center


The rules are pretty straightforward. One: In crime stories, you don't identify minors. Two: In rape stories, you don't identify victims – at some papers, ever, and at other papers, without their consent. Unless the victim is a minor. That's where Rule One meets Rule Two.

Two weeks ago, we met a rape victim we'll call Hawa. We met her through a clinic that, like most institutions in Liberia focused on women who've been raped, is protective of her confidentiality. But unlike most of the women they see, Hawa wanted to be identified. And she's 18.

Turns out, the two of us don't agree on how to handle this. Here's how we see the situation:

Jina (print journalist): On one hand, there's no dilemma. She's 18. She wants to be identified. Fair enough.

But there are some issues that require a little more reflection than even the clearest of rules might suggest. I think rape is one of them. It seems to me to demand a greater sensitivity than the rules say we have to use.

Here's why: Women who have been raped – and others who have been through harrowing experiences, especially in conflict – experienced a situation of powerlessness. They have no agency in what happened to them; that's part of what makes it a crime. When insensitively done, journalism can perpetuate that scenario.

The Dart Center on Journalism and Trauma at Columbia University is working on best practices in "trauma journalism" – stories about natural disasters, terrorism, war and genocide, and interviewing victims, and dealing with children. One of the things they warn against, in every one of these kinds of stories, is "re-traumatizing the victim." And one way to avoid doing that – the Number One Best Practice – is to give the victim, who has become the source, as much control over the story as possible.

That doesn't mean abandoning your journalistic responsibilities to tell the story, or your obligations to the reader. It can mean offering confidentiality or moving a conversation off the record upon request. For me, it also means re-negotiating the terms of the interview at the end. There are often moments where a source shares things with you they'll later regret. I think that rape stories are not the kind of stories where you publish those things anyway. At the end of a conversation, I always ask again how a person wants to be identified.

Which is when Hawa told me I could use her name (which I'm not using here, because Glenna and I are still working out our mutual approach). She wanted to be fully identified – name and face – for a lot of reasons, some of which she shared with us and some of which we probably don't know or understand.

So I think about Rule One and Rule Two. And then I think about the best practices of trauma journalism, which to me are more important. If she were 17 or under, this would not be a conversation: In these cases, we don't use minors names, period.

But in this situation, ultimately I think using her full name, and publishing her photo, is the right thing to do – not because the rules say we can, but because she said we could.When she sits with me, she's the one who controls her story.

Glenna (photojournalist): If Hawa were under 18, and she said I could take an identifying photo, I still wouldn't. It's not that I don't think she knows what's best for herself, it's that there are rules and standards in place to protect the identity of minors. But Hawa isn't a minor. And she wanted me to take her picture. She wanted to tell her story. She wanted to tell everyone. She wanted to shame the man who did this to her.

But I didn't oblige.

It wasn't an easy decision, nor one that I've yet come to terms with completely. But I decided not to for a few reasons. First, 18 isn't the same as 25, or 45. Eighteen is just barely an adult. And here's the other reason: while there are fewer Liberians using the internet than there are, say, Kenyans, there are a lot of Liberians in the diaspora. And they definitely use the internet. And, there also aren't that many Liberians period. The country's population is 3.5 million. So when you ask Sam if he knows Moses, chances are that he does. And if Sam in Minnesota (where there's a large Liberian community) is using the internet, the chances that he knows Hawa are actually pretty high. And maybe Hawa is okay with Sam knowing, but maybe Hawa's mother isn't. Hawa still lives at home (though she is now at a safe house) and her mother's approval is important.

And here's another reason: Hawa has probably had little or no experience with the internet. She might not realize that by giving me permission to take her picture, Sam might see it. Even if he doesn't see it now, he might see it five years, or when Hawa is 25, or 45. And I'm not sure how Hawa will feel about it then.


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