A famous man is accused of sexual assault, and so an alleged victim, who was not so famous, became the subject of intense news media scrutiny.
Why? Did the news-hungry public want the story? Did the news media have a duty to investigate every aspect of this woman’s life, since she might be lying? Or, if an ordinary person accuses a famous person of committing rape or sexual assault, should a victim expect to be thrust into the limelight?
On May 14, 2011, "the woman" had been at her job cleaning luxury rooms in a New York City hotel. She later told authorities she had been assaulted in his room by a very well-known French finance official and politician, Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Once her story broke following the incident, the 32-year-old single mother was suddenly besieged by the media horde congregated outside her Bronx apartment until she escaped to protected seclusion.
Meanwhile, the New York Post, after rumors of offered payoffs from her accuser’s associates, found her family in Africa. The New York Times published a front-page profile from seven reporters on two continents, which detailed her life, as the jump-page headline proclaimed, "From African hut to the glare of a sex-assault case." Once in global syndication, these stories and other investigative probes send a chilling warning to other alleged sexual assault victims—accuse someone famous, whether your motive is justice, notoriety or money, and your life becomes front-page news.
When the media, thanks to leaks from the Manhattan District Attorney’s office and police, began questioning her credibility based on inconsistencies in her case, the alleged victim, Nafissatou Daillo, "went public." Insisting she was telling the truth about the assault, Diallo gave exclusive interviews to Newsweek and ABC’s Good Morning America, followed by a press conference at a local church. The following week, in bold front-page headline, the New York Post called her "a hooker," who "took care" of hotel guests, and she filed a lawsuit.
But eventually those questions about her credibility as a witness pressured the District Attorney to abandon the case, and a presumably vindicated Strauss-Kahn, once a French presidential contender, returned to France to attempt to salvage his career. Shortly after his arrest in New York City, he resigned his position as managing director of the International Monetary Fund, and abandoned the idea of running for President of France.
From the U. S. legal perspective, the victim of an alleged sexual assault or rape could be classified as an involuntary public figure. To recover for libel, the alleged victim would have to prove the media acted with "actual malice" (knowing, reckless falsehood) to recover damages for false and defamatory statements. As for invasion of privacy, newsworthy plaintiffs also face a high hurdle for damages if their stories are considered a matter of legitimate public concern.
As for using the victim’s actual name, a media outlet can publish this identity if it is obtained legally from public records. From the ethical perspective, however, most American news media, including The New York Times, refrain from directly identifying alleged victims until they go public. Media in other countries, such as the French press in this case, openly spread victims’ names and intimate details of their private lives.
While The Times's profile referred to the alleged victim as "the woman" in its 1,833-word exposé, that policy was not always the case. In a front-page story on April 17, 1991, before William Kennedy Smith (a young member of the famous Kennedy political clan) was acquitted in Florida of rape charges, The Times published his accuser’s name, along with intimate details of her private life. Despite its no-name policy, the newspaper used the “everybody else does it” excuse for naming the alleged victim in its profile.
"It remains The Times's practice to guard the identities of sex crime complainants so long as that is possible and conforms to fair journalistic standards," the Florida story stated. "In cases of major political or civic interest, that practice needs to be continually reviewed." And as The Times explained when it finally disclosed the name of the woman in this case, it did so only after her identity became known throughout her community and received detailed nationwide publicity.
When NBA superstar Kobe Bryant was arrested and charged with felony sexual assault in 2003, the identity, photographs and sexual history of the nineteen-year-old resort employee who accused him flooded the Internet. Some students in my media ethics class proclaimed her a "gold digger," while projecting her photo and name on a PowerPoint slide during a class discussion. The charges were later dismissed before trial when the woman declined to testify—was it perhaps due to media and public scrutiny?
News editors might defend these victim profiles as legitimate news stories, since victims are a major part of crime news, and are not always truthful in their accusations.
Profiling alleged victims helps put a "human face" on crime, one of the most popular news genres for generations. From an ethical perspective, however, when does a legitimate news story wander into sensationalism, exploitation or insensitivity, which can scar the newsworthy individual for life, i.e. assault by media? Another matter, outside the scope of this essay, is the possibility of false accusations of sexual misconduct. In such instances, the accused has even less protection than the victim did in the case being examined here.
Such ethical values as compassion, sensitivity and respect for the privacy of alleged sexual assault victims can conflict with the media’s duty to seek and report the truth, especially when the competition is camped out on the alleged victim’s doorstep.
Victim exposés also play into a common defense pre-trial strategy: to put "the woman" on trial by creating doubts about credibility and lifestyle within the potential jury pool. And such unwanted publicity may even pressure the alleged victim (or other witnesses) to alter her stories or refuse to cooperate with prosecutors.
How many sexual assaults go unreported in this country because alleged victims fear “being tried” in court or in the media? Of those cases that do go to trial, how many receive local, much less national, media coverage?
So what is the justification for the global coverage of this case? Innocent until proven guilty, the accused is world-famous. But did Strauss-Kahn receive the same amount of publicity when he was released from jail and allowed to return to France as he did when he was accused and arrested? Obviously not. Does making use of the law to obtain redress for an attack make “the woman” famous, or a public figure, especially when she voluntarily seeks media attention to defend her credibility? Is there a constitutional right to privacy for a victim? This case—and others like it—does not change the ethical rules and traditions the media should live by.
News media, pay attention: unless victims go public, leave them alone!