Wow, guys! It’s almost like kicking up a huge fuss on the internet really works or something!
Mere hours after all of you emailed and called the NY Times public editor about the publication of a child rape victim’s name and photo in Kristof’s column, the man himself has written a post on his blog, explaining why what he did is okay. I’m very glad that he responded to these concerns, and so quickly, too. However, I feel like the substance of his response leaves something to be desired in the actually-making-sense department.
First off, we get an answer to Kate’s question: It is, in fact, still the policy of the New York Times not to publish the names of rape victims, and making exceptions to that policy “requires consultation with a senior editor.” Except perhaps “requires” is too strong a word. Because apparently Kristof didn’t do that, and yet somehow there it is: this little girl’s name and photograph, in the newspaper and on the internet. Funny story: when Kate and I wrote a Letter to the Editor a couple of years ago, responding to a different Kristof piece, the paper fact-checked and edited the daylights out of it. They made us verify the statistic we referenced, fought with us about commas, and laid down the law about what we could mention or link to. (Not this blog, for one thing. And that rule, we can’t help but notice, Kristof did manage to follow.) Perhaps some of those editing resources could be redirected to focus on the source material, rather than readers’ responses to it?
Anyway, Kristof’s thinking is that the debate comes down to this:
“On the one hand, it’s impossible to get rape on the agenda when the victims are anonymous. Human beings just aren’t hard-wired to feel compassion for classes of victims, but for individuals. [...] So one challenge is that if we leave out names and faces, then there’s no outrage, and the rapes go on and on. We’ve seen that in Darfur and elsewhere.
On the other hand, rape victims are already often pariahs, and putting a name or face in print or on the web could make the stigmatization eternal. Where’s the humanitarianism in trying to prevent future rapes if the method risks causing anguish, isolation and life-long stigma to particular rape survivors?”
So, in Kristof’s view, we’ve got two options: (1) rape is not “on the agenda,” but a nine year old child is not put at greater risk of eternal stigmatization causing “anguish, isolation, and life-long stigma”; and (2) rape is “on the agenda,” and the elementary-school-aged rape victim gets to take one for the team.
Apparently, to decide which option to choose in a given case, Kristof employs a what he refers to as a “balancing test”: he begins with “consent of the woman, (and a guardian if she is a minor),” and then tries “to include the kind of details that give granularity without getting the person in trouble.” So, in the case of the girl in Sunday’s column, he apparently gave only the name of the nearest town to her, not the village where she actually lived — in addition to her full name, age, family members’ names, and photograph.
There are obviously a lot of things to say about that. Here are some of them:
- Rape, in the DRC and elsewhere, is, in fact, “on the agenda.” See, for instance, this NY Times article about a speech by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in Goma, in which she unveiled a $17 million aid package targeted at ending sexual violence in eastern Congo. Mainstream media coverage? Check. High-level attention from the U.S. government? Check. Public statements? Check. Actual plan of action, complete with large amounts of cash? Check.
- The real problem is that we can increase awareness all we want, but we just don’t have a good way of turning “awareness” into “an actual solution to the problem.” I wish that were not the case. In the age of the internet, awareness is easy. Putting an end to sexual violence in eastern Congo, unfortunately, remains difficult.
- Given that that’s the case, is it reasonable to weigh “raising awareness” against a concrete risk to an actual child, who is too young to consent? (No.)
- And, on the issue of consent, I am not at all soothed by Kristof’s breezy reference to getting informed consent from a guardian, when children are concerned. That is not the same thing as an adult making the decision for themselves. Allowing a guardian to consent on a child’s behalf is preferable to relying on the child’s judgment alone, particularly in situations where there is a necessary tradeoff between risk and benefit. But here, Kristof offered no benefit to the child herself, and created a risk, through his own actions. The fact that her guardian consented does not absolve him of responsibility for that.
- As to it being okay to identify her, because “nobody in the area ever sees any newspaper or the Internet,” does he really want to work on the assumption that things will stay that way indefinitely? The NY Times puts its archives online, they’re easily searchable, and the material will stay available for the foreseeable future. While it may be true that no one in this little girl’s life reads Kristof’s column now, it seems to me that he’s making a pretty astonishing bet that the internet won’t arrive in her part of the world before enlightened cultural views about rape victims do. Because many places in the world now have internet, but we’re pretty much all still waiting for the enlightenment part.
(Oh, and also he said something about how humanitarians care too much about individuals, but reporters are too quick to publish, and somehow this was typefied by the example of AIDS testing, because humanitarians opposed mandatory testing? I don’t really understand what he’s getting at there, except that it seems like maybe he’s saying that humanitarians opposed mandatory testing for everyone, and journalists wanted to publish the results of everyone’s HIV tests? And apparently the humanitarians won, and that meant thousands of people died. I’m clearly missing something here.)