October 15, 2004

Every newsroom has a decision to make. A local decision.

This is no time simply to follow the wire service, the TV networks, or even the competitor across town.

You’ve got to decide: Now that the accuser in the Kobe Bryant case has re-filed her civil suit under her own name, will your newsroom name her in print, on the air or online?

Some background: AP reported Thursday night that one of the woman’s attorneys, L. Lin Wood, said the woman only identified herself in order to continue with her lawsuit but would prefer that the media not publish her name because she still fears for her safety.

The AP quoted Wood as saying: “The decision about whether to make her name a household word now really does lie in the hands of the media,” and reported that the attorney had received inquiries from at least 10 media outlets asking whether the woman wanted to be named.

What you decide to do in Wichita or Walla Walla might be different than Toledo or Topeka. The decision about whether to name will affect your readers and viewers.

Here are a few questions to ask:

How can I best serve my audience? Sure, there are people in your audience who want to know her name. But what about others in your community? What impact will it have on local rape survivors, if they see a rape victim named or photographed, against her will? Will they feel betrayed by their local TV station or newspaper? How could you find out? Would it be helpful to call the local rape crisis center or a local counselor to get some input?

I’m suggesting that local newsrooms have a different relationship with their audience than national news providers. Even in the age of the Internet, the people of one town or city expect local journalists to think of the hometown first when decisions are made. So ask these questions:

  • What does our audience need to know?

  • What do they want to know?

  • Is there a local angle that we can pursue to enhance the national story?

What have we done in the past when women or men have filed civil suits seeking damages for sexual assault? There’s hardly a community in America that hasn’t had to deal with this. Many of these cases have been in connection with clergy scandals. What did you do then? What’s different about this case? Does celebrity alone make it more compelling? If your newsroom has been inconsistent in the past — or if it has not had to address such a question involving a civil suit — what would you do if this were a local case?

Finally, what big picture issues should you consider? Will publishing the name of a Colorado woman who claims she was assaulted impact victims of sexual assault in your community? Is it possible that your readers or viewers will be less likely to pursue justice in the criminal or civil courts because of your decision? Explore points of view on all sides of the question, from local prosecutors, victims’ advocates, and others.

It’s tempting to limit our thinking about this story as the case of a famous basketball player in a faraway place. It’s not. It’s about your newsroom and your community. Sexual assault is prevalent everywhere. Date rape, incest, and stranger attacks happen everywhere. As journalists we have an obligation to serve our communities, our audience.

What are you going to do?

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Kelly McBride is a writer, teacher and one of the country’s leading voices when it comes to media ethics. She has been on the faculty…
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