so now she's a "stripper"?

I couldn't help notice the change in vocabulary in this afternoon's announcement on the national news update on NPR about the dismissal of charges in the Duke Lacrosse case. Now that the accusations have been deemed false, the accuser has morphed from an "exotic dancer" to a "stripper." I think I remember some discussion in the local media at the beginning of the case about media squeamishness about the word "stripper," but if memory serves, most of the media descriptions of the party called the accuser an "exotic dancer," or sometimes just a "dancer," and left it to listeners'/readers' imaginations just what this dancing amounted to.

I think there was an unexpressed impulse behind that editorial move to protect the alleged victim of a sexual assault from aspersions on her reputation, as though even to call her a stripper might invite suggestions that she was setting herself up for whatever treatment she received. "Dancer" is what we call a young mother with the odds stacked against her trying to pay her way through college. "Stripper" is what we call someone who gets involved in a sleazy business because it pays better than more respectable lines of work. (Not that service employees of any stripe are much respected in today's economy.)

But now that the special prosecutors have determined that the victim(s) in this case is not the accusing witness (formerly known as "alleged victim"), but the objects of the accusation, she's a "stripper." Is this vocabulary shift conscious? Is the media that participated in the now-maligned "rush to judgment" against these young men now trying to redeem itself from that portrayal by using descriptors that reinforce the picture of the accuser as an un-credible manipulator of the system?

(Or has the national media been using the s-word all along, and I just never noticed because I've been listening to local coverage? I notice that the N&O still calls her a dancer. I wonder what a Lexis-Nexis search would turn up about the label of choice in various news outlets over the life of this story -- but not quite enough to go and do the search.)

Another vocabulary shift I noticed in this afternoon's report was a comment that this has come to be known as the "Duke Rape Case." Odd, I don't think I had ever actually heard that phrase until that moment. I had always heard it called the "Duke Lacrosse Case." Or maybe the "Duke Lacrosse Rape Case," but lacrosse always seemed to be the key modifier. Especially since December, it hasn't been a rape case at all, because those charges were dropped.

Again, I can't help wonder about editorial psychology. This started out as a story about overprivileged white student-athletes run amok, with a lot of scrutiny on the athletic culture at Duke in general and the culture of the lacrosse team in particular. Calling the case something other than what it's been universally known as for over a year seems like another bit of journalistic backpedalling -- having used all this ink and airtime besmirching the Duke Lacrosse program, now that the case is closed, we're going to pretend like we never even imagined that it had anything to do with lacrosse.

These are all fine semantic points, I know, and I could very well be over-interpretting them. But word choice colors the story that's being told. Without a doubt, the story being told today is a very different one than was being told a year ago about this case. But these subtle semantic shifts seem to mask the way that the supposedly objective media takes sides in the story it is telling. (And here, I know I'm letting a breaking-news item on NPR stand in for the entire national media.) Maybe that's just the difference -- a quick item squeezed in between regular programming doesn't have time to tell the longer story, including the part that the media played in it. when time is limited, each word must be selected for maximum impact. But I'll be watching the local media to see how they tell the story, including the story of how the story changed.

As for the case itself, I'm selfishly very glad that they made the announcement on a day that I didn't have business on campus. I hate those news trucks all over the place. And I'm glad it's not going to a jury trial, because I think that would have been very hard on this community, and probably would not have provided real closure. I guess over all I'm glad it's over -- while hauntingly aware that it's far from over for the people involved.


Sarah said...

I noticed that!!! What's up with that? She lied, and we believed her, so now we have to prove we weren't fooled after all?

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