(Written with Herb Strentz)
The Des Moines Register in 1991 won the Pulitzer Prize for public service for exemplary coverage of a rape, coverage that set a high standard for sensitivity and responsibility. On June 16 of this year the Register once more gave noteworthy coverage to a young woman raped multiple times that again deserved a prize — a booby prize — thanks to the paper allowing anonymous online scurrilous comments about the victim.
The victim, Tiffany Goldman, 21, to her credit, allowed her identity and picture to be published, which the Register did on its front page.
The paper then abused Goldman’s trust by allowing an anonymous reader to muse, in an online posting, about how many orgasms she may have had during the ordeal. Yes, postings by readers are difficult to police, but the number of rape victims willing to come forward and be identified surely is not so great, and providing these few with protection from boorish contributors ought to be manageable.
The crude treatment of the victim in this instance was made more difficult to comprehend by the Register’s bending over backwards in its news coverage to protect the identity of her rapists. The police report of the attacks noted several times that her attackers were ‘”three black males.” but none of this identifying information appeared in the paper.
Identification by race has been abused in crime reporting through the years. But when fugitives are at large, it’s undeniably useful to know a person’s color in narrowing the field of suspects. In this instance, police obviously regarded the race of the rapists as relevant, just as they would the color of any getaway car involved.
The description “three black males” can fit a lot of people. It would be more helpful if one of three also had a missing limb, but police — and the press — have to deal with descriptions of fugitives as they find them.
The Register broke new ground 20 years ago when it candidly reported a rape victim’s story. The paper was fortunate that the victim in that instance was willing to have her identity disclosed. That led to a great deal of soul-searching by the press about how to get more stories of sexual assaults into print. The willingness of Tiffany Goldman to shed the anonymity the Register was prepared to grant her may well have been influenced by what happened in Des Moines 20 years earlier. One has to wonder how many of the women who witnessed the shabby anonymous online treatment of Goldman by this same publication conclude that following her courageous example would be a mistake.