Kobe Bryant Case and the Web

By: Joe Strupp

News Analysis

There it was, on one of several Web sites: A photo of a young, blonde woman, her alleged name below, and the claim that she is the accuser of NBA star Kobe Bryant. So what is a reporter supposed to do with this information? In the past, naming alleged victims of rape or sexual assault was a prime media taboo. You just didn’t do it. But today, with the Internet offering an avenue for anyone to report anything at any time, it was inevitable that the identity of Bryant’s accuser — along with her address, emotional problems, and possibly her favorite color — would pop up along the World Wide Web, with plenty of curious Net surfers, and journalists, glad to have (and possibly share) the information.

Does that mean that newspapers should finally abandon their policy of not naming alleged rape victims? If the Internet is going to get the word out to the public, why should print journalists feel the need to keep the name confidential? Already, one nationally syndicated radio talk show host has revealed the alleged victim’s name, leading many to believe that it will soon spread through the mainstream media.

“It is no longer practical that newspapers will be able to succeed in keeping the name out of the public domain,” said Geneva Overholser, an instructor at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, who has long advocated the naming of alleged rape victims as a way to remove the stigma they face. “Not only does the existence of the Internet mean we will not be able to not name the victim, but it also means that it is time that this journalistic aberration is not appropriate.”

Overholser, who served as editor of The Des Moines (Iowa) Register from 1988 to 1995, received national attention in 1990 when the paper published a series looking into the issue of rape, which included identifying a victim who agreed to have her story told. The coverage won a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 1991. Today, Overholser contends that naming a sexual assault victim will not only help overcome the stigma of such crimes, but is a more balanced approach to reporting. “It is unfair to allow people to make charges and then have us, as journalists, shield them,” she argues.

While no newspapers have named the Kobe Bryant accuser, most have been quick to give details about her life, ranging from where she attends college to stories of an alleged drug overdose. References to her friends and relatives also have made it easy to narrow down who she might be.

Still, editors at two of the major papers heavily involved in the coverage — the Los Angeles Times and the Denver Rocky Mountain News — say they will stick to their policy of not naming an alleged rape victim without her consent. “If you have a policy, which we do, you cannot be influenced by what others do,” said Dean Baquet, managing editor of the Times, who said his paper has withheld information about the victim, such as her college or a picture of her home. “In fact you have to be more conservative today because the definition of what’s out there has changed. Anything can be up on a Web site.” Baquet also stood by the argument that a stigma remains on rape victims, and said it is not up to newspapers to alter it. “It is not our responsibility to change society,” he said. “If you are swayed by the argument that it is already out there, you are not making your own judgment.”

John Temple, editor and publisher of the Rocky Mountain News, echoed Baquet’s viewpoint. “We can’t be driven by what the Internet or television does,” he told E&P. “We have named rape victims, but only if they agree to be named.” He cited the recent Air Force Academy sexual assault scandal, which prompted the paper to identify four alleged victims after they agreed to be named.

The News took its protection of victims a step further last week in a story it ran about a woman who had been wrongly identified on several Web sites as Bryant’s victim. In the article, which detailed how the woman’s attorney had sent letters to several sites asking them to stop using her name and photo, the News did not name the woman, but did name her parents.

Still, this case could be a turning point for rape coverage. Many believe if newspapers hold off naming Bryant’s accuser, the historical taboo will solidify. If not, this could be the last stand for those who oppose such identification. “I think at some point, everyone will just do it and we will break through this,” said Overholser. “There are difficulties. Truth-telling has victims.”

E&P welcomes letters to the editor: letters@editorandpublisher.com.

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