When news broke a few weeks ago alleging that American servicemen had raped an Iraqi female and killed her family, reporters could not confirm the victim’s age, which was estimated to be anywhere from 15 to 25. So they understandably took the safe route and called her a “young Iraqi woman.” But yesterday, Editor and Publisher ran a thought-provoking article revealing that several days after Reuters and other agencies reported that the victim’s passport and identity card showed she’s 14, many news agencies have still not changed how they refer to her.
As of Tuesday, the list of sources using “young woman” included the Associated Press, the Washington Post, USA Today, the Houston Chronicle, CNN, PBS’s “NewsHour With Jim Lehrer” and CBS News. On Monday, the New York Times and Bloomberg called her a “girl,” and the Los Angeles Times or McClatchy’s used a variation of “teenager.” Reuters just listed her age.
The inconsistency could be attributed to hurried reporters, who simply haven’t updated their copy, or cautious journalists, who might be waiting for additional confirmation. (Some stories noted that her age was still contested, since the FBI released an affidavit from one suspect that estimated her age to be closer to 25.) Rape is a horrible crime — whether it’s perpetrated on a “young woman,” a “teen” or a “girl.” But language matters, and journalists should take care to be precise when they can — or at least explain why when they’re not.
Sarah Elizabeth Richards is a journalist based in New York. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.More Sarah Elizabeth Richards.