Kristof Responds: Why It’s Not Okay to Publish Rape Victims’ Names, Except When He Does It

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.)
  4. 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.
  5. 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.)

16 thoughts on “Kristof Responds: Why It’s Not Okay to Publish Rape Victims’ Names, Except When He Does It

  1. Kristof is a good writer who is widely read. Fame has gone to his head. He thinks he is not accountable to anyone. Africa is "on the map" when he is there. At least one impoverished campaigner for injured children visited him in New York (harder to achieve than meeting Obama) but he ignored the story because he could not be the hero reporting on the frontline. He will never meet that little raped girl again and if he cares, words are not enough. There are more cell phones per head of population in much of Africa than there are in the USA and cell phones can use Internet. The rapists are probably chuckling at the child's images right now.

  2. I am so glad that you guys exposed this in your blog. I am also totally frustrated as in what to do about all this and angry because someone like Kristof manages to somehow eloquently wiggle his way out of the mess he made, making him look (to the eyes of the average NYT reader) all saintly.
    It pisses me off over and over again when people allow themselves to break every rule of ethical journalism just because the subjects of their article are from Africa and it SEEMS (sic!) to the journalists "that there’s zero chance that the column or video is going to reach these communities in which these women live or haunt them in any way. (They realized that, and it’s one reason why they were so forthcoming.)" I don't want to add to all that you have written in your blog, as you did a great job, but I just want to add that I think there should be zero tolerance policy for such unethical journalism. People's privacy should be protected even if they live in cave a world far far away behind seven mountains and seven lakes where an evil king rules and even if they don't have internet access. Would naked photos of children from South Omo be OK on some childporn chanel just because those people walk around naked anyway and they also don't have internet access and you paid your 2 birr for the photo when you took it? Grrrrrr.

  3. Kristof is saying that journalists could have saved the day if only humanitarians had let them, by forcing HIV testing on everyone because they/we/someone other than the individual knows what's best for all those people not required to be tested!

    And now, if only we would let them, journalists can save the day by exposing all the women that have been raped! I'll take this opportunity to invoke the Underwear Gnomes as you did recently, to explain:

    1) Expose victims. 2) ?? 3) Justice for all!

  4. I think we need to write another email and let Kristoff and the publishers know that we don't agree with his line of reasoning.

  5. I'm glad you guys wrote it,too. But to those who write 'so glad you guys exposed this…" Uh, what? You didn't object before you saw it on someone's blog? Lots of us wrote directly to NYTimes editors & to Nick & they responded. (I disagree with them…that's another story, though follow-up is essential.) Take some responsibility, puhleeze.

    Well done, K&A.

  6. Kristof and I had an email exchange about 15 minutes before he blogged on this… I think he makes two points worth more consideration than they are thus far getting: that journalists and advocates/NGO workers have different impulses, and we might both go too far, in opposite and competing directions. And that he notices a difference in the impact of his work when he uses names/faces and when he doesn't.

    I'm particularly curious to know how people in the non-journalism world measure the social or political impact of their work, and whether they can tell if anonymity affects that impact. Any takers?

    You'll see in my posts that I'm not totally sold on his choice, but I think these points are worth discussing. Would love it if others might come over and join the conversation here. (I really do want to know how you non-journalists measure this stuff. I don't know how to measure it even in journalism; my platform isn't big enough to see the difference Kristof is talking about…)

  7. Thanks for your post. I do believe Kristof just wants to help, but indeed, he made a mistake and should just acknowledge this.

    If there are standard guidelines, you must be damn sure before breaching them.

  8. my frustration with kristoff is not least that he seems to see awareness raising as an end in and of itself, and the girl whose name etc was published is simply collateral damage – all of this has been raised above and in the original fabulous blog posts here on wronging rights.

    an additional frustrating thing is that there really are attempts to take next steps as to what to DO about rape in war – there's a new UN SRSG on sexual violence in conflict (who we hope will be politically backed up and have some serious resources behind her); there are a lot of NGOs on the ground trying to provide services to survivors, etc. what doesn't seem to get done is the bridging between policy (ie the protection obligation in the monuc mandate) and practice (ie lack of DPKO troop mobility to high risk areas; SEA; lack of conditionality that led to the Kimia II fiasco). what i'd love to see more about in the news pieces is more on Bosco running around free; the difficulty with provision of services, protection, and justice in a conflict situation, etc, rather than "i'm doing this in the name of awareness raising."

    ARGH.

    rant over – thanks for your awesome blog!

  9. Maybe it's just my computer, but it looks like NY Times took down the offending post, as well as all 56 reader comments on the follow-up column, "Is It Ever O.K. to Name Rape Victims?" Personally, I think they should have left the reader comments up, but it looks like Kristof gets to have the last word. What a shocker.

  10. As someone from an agency which tries to both raise awareness of this issue and provide services to survivors, I so often wince even before reading stories on rape in DRC (and other places, too). Nick Kristof has done a lot to make the world aware of trafficking and rape and child marriage and maternal death and for that he really does deserve credit. But somehow the sexual violence coverage has become so sensationalistic that it may be actually impairing the response because donors to agencies like mine have started to question the statistics, or, worse to FOCUS on the statistics, and neglect support for the basic health services these women and girls need. While it is a horrific situation in eastern DRC, rape is one part of the horror. And while every rape of every woman is horrible, these are part of an overall situation of all types of violence. Women in DRC, even those who have had this terror, are often unhappy that their situation seems to be defined by this one thing when there are many aspects of their lives which need attention. It is almost as if the international media, in an attempt to do good, is perpetuating the stigma by focussing on it to the exclusion of all the other horrors (including torture and killing of both men and women).

    Im glad to see a discussion of this issue on this great site…

  11. WRT the mention of Clinton's visit and a new $17 million aid package for response to rape in the DRC, don't believe everything you read in a press release. Just a shell game of counting existing and planned future programs as a 'deliverable' and absolutely no new money. As for high-level USG attention, that comes and goes about every 18 months in the DRC, but is more smoke than fire.

  12. Oh, good catch. If it weren't for her name being published in the NYT, a bunch of Congolese villagers would never have known that this poor little girl was brutalized. Browsing the times over a latte down in the market, the village elders must have been scandalized to see her name and photo in print. Certainly these things aren't well known in the community, so Kristof really blew it by making her trauma public information in her village. Come on. I'm totally down with busting on big media, and the UN too, but if you think that a picture and name published in the times has any relevance whatsoever to life in a village in N.K., or that this was the way that local people found out about the poor kid's trauma, you might want to reconsider your argument in larger, more generic 'it's just bad practice to publish names' terms.

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