Public interest vs. personal harm

Public Interest

If as Kristof suggests, the only way to make people care about a critical issue is to reveal their identity, does this justify exposing the individual to any degree of harm?

In 2003 Linda M. Richter wrote an article about the epidemic of infant rape in South Africa. She is an academic with the Child, Youth and Family Development Human Sciences Research Council, at the School of Psychology at University of Natal, South Africa. She traces the historical genesis of the myth that sex with a virgin cures sexually transmitted disease to the first documented cases in 1913 in the UK. In South Africa, where one in five people is HIV positive, 10 percent of rapes are committed against children under the age of three.  She notes that the media coverage of a few of these cases in South Africa were met with public horror and she mentions the case of Alice and Princess, but does not name the child. She goes on to elaborate that some media insinuated that the caregivers who left their infants in such vulnerable situations might have done so intentionally and for profit. Furthermore, doctors who administered antiretroviral drugs to a 9-month-old rape victim were censured by the provincial government for contravening government policy and providing a survivor of rape with prophylactic treatment. Richter says that these ideas supported a link between virgins and HIV cures. That the media unwittingly reinforced that baby rape can cure HIV is a stunning revelation supported by an expert in No Past to Speak Of, who says that some people have told her they know the cure is “true”, because they read about it in the media.

Impact analyses of documentary films are demonstrating that they do have real and measurable effects on corporate behavior, public perception and policy. However, the filmmaker cannot presume that the consequences of their film will be favorable. It’s safe to assume that the journalists who publicized cases of infant rape in South Africa did not know that by linking the HIV myth with these cases, that they might be encouraging this belief. Richter explains:

         “To date, there have been no published psychological analyses of infant rapes in South Africa, nor could detailed clinical or research material be sourced in the international literature. The first step required to protect babies from rape is to gather information at the social, situational and psychological levels that increases our capacity to understand and prevent the sexual abuse of infants.”

 Public good vs. personal harm

With those guidelines in mind,the question in this case becomes whether showing the face of a victim of infant rape would harm this child growing up, and whether there is a benefit provided to the public.

Alice considered this question before granting permission for her daughter’s face to be used in the media and the documentary. One of her reasons for agreeing to do the documentary was to prevent another infant from being raped, a definite public good. She also believed that this documentary could be beneficial to her daughter in the future as she worked through the trauma:

“At some point she’s going to ask me that question [why she was raped] and there is no real answer, but certainly the film goes a long way to providing the context and helping her to grapple with that question and also to see clearly that she was not at fault. She was an infant.”

The balance between public good and future harm was something both Gans and Lee considered before making a decision. Lee makes a clear argument for the public good. “We really thought that it would be much more resonant to the viewer if we could show her face. It would just make for a much more compelling story,” Lee said. “We were also moved by Alice’s very compelling argument that she wanted to make [her daughter’s] story resonate beyond just [her] as an individual, because at the time there were a number of very high-profile cases of child rapes and she really wanted to encourage a broader kind of societal discussion around the issue and we thought that that was very important.”

But Lee also recognizes that he couldn’t know how the film would affect the child in the future. Victims of sexual assault often experience physical and emotional symptoms of trauma throughout their life, including PTSD, anxiety, depression and thoughts of suicide. It’s possible that living in the public eye could exacerbate those problems.

The Dart Centre for Journalism and Trauma at the University of Columbia Graduate School of Journalism writes that “[j]ust because a victim agrees to be named doesn’t mean you should do it. There may be circumstances where the potential harm is greater than the benefit.” In the case of No Past to Speak Of it was truly impossible to determine the future harm showing this child’s face might cause at the time. It was equally impossible to quantify the public good that would come from producing a documentary that would include her image. The filmmakers had to think through the ethics and make the decision they felt was best.

Next: The decision-making point

Leave a Reply