Kristof’s Publication of Child Rape Victim’s Name and Photo was Kind of Messed Up: Just Ask Kristof

So, last week, Nicholas Kristof wrote an Op-Ed about the DRC that followed the usual theme (rape & lions + wailing and gnashing of teeth over why conflict remains “overlooked” or “forgotten” by the western media). This time, though, he added something new: the name and photograph of a nine year old girl who was brutally raped by rebel soldiers. He also described her home town and family in great detail, and mentioned that she has contracted a sexually transmitted disease.

WTF?

I’ve written before about why I think it is unethical to present rape victims in this way. Especially if they are children, who cannot give meaningful consent. And especially if they live in a society where “most raped women are rejected by their husbands, and raped girls like [her] have difficulty marrying.”

But you don’t have to take my word for it. Here’s Nicholas Kristof himself, last May, on why he and his employer The New York Times make it a policy not to publish the names or photos of rape victims:

“The practical consequence of naming victims in newspapers would, I think, be a disaster: even fewer women (and men) would report rapes. So I vote for sticking with the existing policy until we’re all more enlightened.”

I’m sorry, but quoi? It would be a “disaster” to name rape victims, but not when they are Congolese children who face even deeper discrimination than rape victims here in the United States?

I don’t question that Kristof’s intentions are good. I’m sure that he thought that publicizing this little girl’s story in lurid detail would somehow benefit her and others like her, through our old friend “raising awareness.” But that doesn’t make it okay: good intentions are not enough. And, more importantly, it’s not a reasonable choice for him to make, because he’s not the one who will have to bear the consequences if it goes wrong. This child is. And she is nine years old. As in “t-minus nine years to the age of majority.” As in “cannot give meaningful consent.” As in “don’t publish her goddamn picture, and all available identifying information about her, in the apparently-laxly-edited Paper of Record.”

P.S. If only there were guidance on this issue from some sort of international body dedicated to children’s rights. . . .Oh, wait! Alert reader Hervé reminds me that UNICEF has issued a comprehensive set of Principles for Ethical Reporting on Children. They include “Always change the name and obscure the visual identity of any child who is identified as [...] a victim of sexual abuse or exploitation.” And “avoid categorisations or descriptions that expose a child to negative reprisals – including additional physical or psychological harm, or to lifelong abuse, discrimination or rejection by their local communities. “
Man, those utopian UN types, with their unreasonable demands and high expectations. When will they ever learn?

18 thoughts on “Kristof’s Publication of Child Rape Victim’s Name and Photo was Kind of Messed Up: Just Ask Kristof

  1. Hear, hear, Amanda! Let's write grumpy letters to the NYT.

    The other issue with this is that even if an adult family member consented to having her name used and her video taken, how could they possibly understand the consequences of letting him do so? Your average citizen of rural DRC has never used or seen the internet, much less the wonders of flash media. I sincerely doubt that this child's parent or adult guardian agreed to this with full knowledge of what it would mean.

  2. This is not the first time I've questioned Kristof's judgment. In his Outside magazine article last December he suggested to his readers that "…if you're trekking in the Himalayas, come back not with stories of impoverished villages but rather ones about a particular 12-year-old girl who, if she received just $10 a month, could stay in school. Come back with photos of her—or, better, video that you put on a blog or Web site." I raked him over the coals then for his bad judgment and advice to donors. http://informationincontext.typepad.com/good_intentions_are_not_e/2009/12/more_bad_donor_advice.html

  3. As a former development worker and current journalism student, I want to know: how should this story be written?

    I ask because the whole point of journalism is to tell stories. Numbers are tangential–nobody understands what they mean. If people understood numbers, we'd all just agree upon an equation for utopia and solve the world.

    Many people don't trust NGOs or the UN, too.

    So how can I write a story that will convince my fictional Aunt Mildred to stop monologuing about rape in Congo and admit she might not understand the issues? Simple: with a name and a face. Seeing both, Aunt Mildred suddenly won't say something naive like, "oh, why don't they just buy more tanks?" or suggest that God was getting even with them.

    I argue that there is a dire need for such stories. There have been enough anonymous and detail-devoid stories coming out of Haiti in the past few weeks to make me switch off my radio in disgust whenever Haitians are commodified. Only with an identity can people have dignity. Also, an anonymous story is an unverifiable story, which is in all likelihood a tall tale.

    I bet Kristof (and whoever edited his column–the decision was a consensus) put a lot of thought into his choice to publish names, and I'm sure he tried hard to explain the consequences to his subjects. (Though I admit that in all probability they will never understand what the New York Times is.) I'm also anticipating the public editor's response to your letters.

    I'll end off with the same question, because I really mean it: how do you suggest child rape be reported? Is my dichotomy between poignant/evil (Kristof's article) and banal/good (anonymous/numerical article) under-researched?

  4. Adam – I'm pretty much guessing the exact same article minus the girl's real name, photo and detailed description of her family would do.

    If it makes for a worse story? who gives a damn, really? There are more important things than a good story in the NYT.

  5. lest that come off as too catty, I do take the point that it reduces the 'commodification' of suffering. But when it's a 9 year old child, you need a much higher threshold for necessity. As for the story being unverifiable, I'm not sure how much a story like this adds at all. It's equally powerful if we can explain how common the problem is without going into individual details.

  6. Thanks for picking up on this – more than the aspect of "the wrong approach" toward DR Congo, using a child in this manner astounds me.

    Adam Hooper, although Nicholas Kristof in the film "Reporter" talks all about the theory of 'psychic numbing,' and although that is true, and although we need individual details to feel connected and compassionate and urged to action, none of it is worth outing this young person that is already so vulnerable. "Trying hard" to explain consequences is not enough. I have worked in scientific research, and although this type of thing (outing of a study participant) may happen, it's generally recognized that it's completely unacceptable. Granted journalism is not held to these standards, but it's apparent that guidelines already exist for minors and victims of crimes.

    I have to ask – what is the added value for the cause of using a real name rather than changing it, and using a photo that is not a full-on portrait? I mean, what is the added value beyond maintenance of Kristof's readership? Because for the child, I see none.

  7. His use of children for the betterment of his story leads has been in the past and continues to be COMPLETELY unacceptable. It is BEYOND me how his columns continue like this. Not to mention the total lack of analysis — it's just! I mean! What? Why? How???

  8. @Adam Hooper

    For stunning photojournalism that manages to obscure the faces of minors who need that (for a variety of reasons), visit Scarlett Lion's photo blog. If Glenna took the picture, and I wrote the story and changed the name (and possibly obscured some details that might be too identifying), you could still convince your Aunt Mildred that something more than God getting even with the poor is going on there.

    Glenna and I had a discussion along these lines in Liberia in October. The difference is that the young woman whose story we were going to tell was 18. Technically an adult. And she wanted her name and face out there. I thought that was clearance enough. Glenna said, "But does she really understand what that means?"

    That's a tough question for me. I feel very strongly that a journalist's job is not to be paternalistic, to guess about how a person would feel about the consequences of a decision and then make it on their behalf. However, there's a very real question here about what "informed consent" means, and that should be teased out of paternalism.

    But not when she's 9, for christ's sake.

  9. Typical. Kristof continues to be responsible for some of the most insensitive, crass and trite reporting of Africa.

    Now he shows what an uncaring person he is. Dressing up his insensitive, sensationalist pap as compassion is exposed as a sham.

    How he commands such attention remains a mystery to me.

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