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EDITORIAL: Abandon the word accuser

The Lumberjack editorial board recognizes the sensitivity of this topic and the affect this discussion can have on victims and survivors. We would like to remind readers that the North Coast Rape Crisis team has a 24-hour hotline for those in need. You can reach the NCRC hotline at 707-445-2881.

Brett Kavanaugh, Bill Cosby, Larry Nassar, Kobe Bryant, Donald Trump, and Harvey Weinstein. This brief and incomplete list of men with sexual violence and harassment charges are referred to by the media with their formal titles: Judge, doctor, priest, actor, athlete, president of the United States and so on.

The women, and in some cases men, who came forward to speak up against these perpetrators, alleged or guilty, were almost always addressed as “accuser” or “accused.”

Moving forward and after publication of this article we have decided to stop using this word in reference to victims of all forms of sexual violence or harassment and urge all news and media to do the same. We reached this decision after Humboldt State University’s Journalism professor Victoria Sama gave a presentation on Oct. 23 on the history of the use of the word accuser by mainstream media.

In law, when referring to a victim of other crimes such as murder or robbery, we never call those victims “accusers.”

Former trial attorney Michele Sharpe addresses this concept in an opinion on the Washington Post called “Who’s a victim? Who’s an ‘accuser’? The loaded language of sexual assault.”

“American law has never had special terms for victims of crimes other than rape: We have only the generic terms ‘victim’ or ‘witness,’ as in murder victim and robbery witness,” Sharpe said.

The language used to refer to sexual assault victims separates them from the definition of victims of other crimes. In the end, the word “accuser” implies that victims of sexual assault have something to prove.

Sharpe encourages journalists reporting on sexual assault to include both names or to use identifying titles for both parties in case of requests for anonymity.

Sama said in California state system, dating back to 1850, she found uses of the word “accuser,” but generally in reference to policy and law rather than an individual or party. Sama said the word began to carry with it “inferences of doubt,” in the 17th century for common English law and carried over to American law.

During this time English Chief Justice Matthew Hale required instruction for juries to judge women. Women were the ones who primarily brought rape cases to trial in the 17th century. Hale claimed that rape was an easy charge to make and defend and juries should require cautionary examination of female persons in question.

Eventually in 1975, this cautionary instruction was done away with after People vs. Rincon Pineda. A case concerning a woman who left her window open for her cat and was sexually assaulted by a drunk man who entered her home through the window.

On a religious spectrum, the term accuser has adversarial or enemy implications. In the King James bible, the term accuser is a term used to reference the devil as the “accuser of the brethren.”

The use of the word accuser is also written into some journalism standards. The Associated Press Style Book, quite often referred to as the journalist’s bible, guides journalists on grammar, punctuation, ethics and how to address people in specific circumstances and more. The style book is updated to reflect current happenings and terms every year.

AP has updated entries in its 2018 edition with victim and survivor. According to this entry, “use those terms with care because they can be imprecise and politically and legally fraught.”

The AP, the Washington Post, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, NPR, CNN and more, consistently use the word accuser when reporting on sexual assault and the victims thereof.

As news publications that lead in responsibility to accurately report the news with clarity, we strongly urge them to stop using the word accuser. We ask that the Associated Press edit the terms victim and survivor in their style book. We ask that the media starts to consider the seriousness of separating victims of sexual assault from victims of other crimes.

After exploring the history and trends of the word accuser in the media, law, religion and by definition we reached the same conclusion as Sharpe and Sama:

“The word accuser is a superficially neutral term.”

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