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The Poynter Institute’s Al Tompkins presents a tricky ethical conundrum: In standard criminal cases involving allegations of sexual assault, a victim’s identity is almost always withheld to protect the victim. But what about alleged victims in civil lawsuits? According to Tompkins in his analysis of the pending civil case against Pittsburgh Steeler’s quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, while the standards for criminal sexaul assault cases are quite clear, civil accusations are another matter entirely, and the water is very murky. That said, reporters have to weigh a plethora of factors in making a very hard decision. According to Tompkins, a majority of Pittsburgh newspapers and even ESPN have withheld the alleged victim’s name, but Tompkins asserts that he would do otherwise.
Tompkins said in his analysis, “I lean toward naming the accuser in this case. Seeking compensation in a civil suit affords one less protection than pressing to jail an attacker in order to protect society. Not naming her, as I noted above, could potentially cause harm to others not involved in the incident.”
Indeed, whatever the outcome, Roethlisberger will be a free man, but it may cost him his fortune and his job if he is found liable. (Is guilty the wrong word here?) And while his accuser (whom Roethlisberger has named publically in his own statement and which news organizations still refuse to repeat, adding another dimension entirely to the debate) might certainly find herself to be the subject of retribution either by fans or by Roethlisberger himself (and there is no evidence currently to suggest that she would be), she doesn’t seem to warrent the level of protection required if this were a matter of sending Roethlisberger to prison.
Still, as Tompkins points out, what is even more troubling than perhaps a reluctance by Pittsburgh publications to release the accusers name is the reluctance for ESPN to acknowledge the case at all until after Roethlisberger made a statement. They cited precedent in not naming accusers of sports figures in civil cases; however, Tompkins points out that that policy is inconsistent and they have named accusers in sex related civil cases before.
Regardless, the Tompkins piece is worth a read. And regardless of how news organizations proceed this time, Tompkins’s organizatiaon suggests that it would be prudent for all news organizations to “revisit [policies on sexual assault victims] on a regular basis.”
Copyright David R. Norton 2009