August 25, 2004

It’s time to start the what if conversation.

With few exceptions, newsrooms across the county have withheld the name of Kobe Bryant’s accuser.

That’s true despite the following:

  • It takes only rudimentary Google skills to find a website that posts her name and picture.

  •  A weekly tabloid newspaper published her name and photos months ago.

  • The Colorado courts have mistakenly released documents to the media containing her name and other sealed information. The courts have done this not once, but twice.

The general resistance to naming the accuser in this case suggests that the principles behind anonymity for sexual assault victims are deeply ingrained in American newsrooms, even if they aren’t well-understood.

Why don’t we name rape victims? Because of the stigma. Because rape is a unique crime that inflicts shame and blame on its victims. Because research shows rape victims are already unlikely to report the crime — and most rape victims say they would be less inclined to pursue legal justice if they thought their names would be published.

Yet in this case, the anonymity hasn’t done much to protect the 20-year-old woman from all the bad things we want to protect her from — the stigma, the shame, the embarrassment. She has little privacy remaining. Many of us already know — or think we know — more about her sex life than we do about the intimate details of our friends and neighbors. So it’s easy to agree with the San Francisco Chronicle’s Vicki Haddock, who wrote Sunday that not naming the woman is “like handing her a tiny origami umbrella to shelter her from a shower of mud.”

But this is about more than just the accuser’s loss of privacy. This is about the hundreds of thousands of women and men, girls and boys, who are raped every year, who must decide whether to report the crime and pursue a criminal case.

The New York Times reported Sunday that coverage of the criminal charges against Kobe Bryant has changed the conversation about sexual assault in America. Rape crisis centers report a surge in the number of sexual assault survivors who want counseling, even though most of them don’t want to pursue criminal charges.

The changes are positive and negative, The Times reports. More people are talking about sexual assault. More people seem to be aware of its pervasiveness. But, more people seem to believe rape is a matter of interpretation of what actually happened between the two people involved. And more victims suspect they won’t be believed.

The outcome of the criminal case against Bryant is likely to underscore all those effects.

So what happens if newsrooms name her? What if the charges are dropped, or if the jury acquits Bryant? Should we name her?

In newsrooms around the country, editors and news directors are suggesting it would be hard to justify her anonymity if the courts don’t deliver a guilty verdict.

If the legal system concludes there is insufficient evidence against Bryant to commence a trial or deliver a conviction, does this woman change categories in our newsroom view? Does she lose her status as a victim? Does she simply become one of those unfortunate people who find their lives thrust into the public eye?

Yes certainly, many very smart journalists will say. If a jury concludes she was not raped, shouldn’t journalists act accordingly? Yes, I agree. Tell people: Jury declares Bryant not-guilty, or Prosecutors drop charges. Strip it across the front page. Put it in the A-block. Publish follow-up stories for days on end. Give Bryant his chance to comment. Interview the analysts about his future endorsement contracts. Report it with the same intensity and vigor exercised when the charges were first reported in July 2003.

There are serious consequences to being branded a rapist. And if our courts determine there is not enough evidence to convict Bryant, we journalists would be obligated to do all that is in our power ensure that part of the story is told. But reporting dismissed charges or a not-guilty verdict does not require publishing the woman’s name. Fairness for Bryant does not need to include punishment for his accuser. Whether or not it is intended, naming her would look and sound like castigation from the almighty media. We gave you the benefit of the doubt, little missy, and now we are taking it back.

Even in the face of an acquittal, what is the journalistic purpose of naming her? Fairness, some say. Standard-operating procedure, others suggest. Now that the courts say she’s no longer a victim, we journalists are obligated to take off the gloves.

But many journalists argue that by granting the accuser anonymity we inappropriately insulate her from the forces of accountability. That is, afterall, why we don’t allow anonymous sources to make personal attacks. If you are going to say something bad about someone, we are going to attribute the charge to you. That way, if you’re wrong, you suffer the consequences.

Yet many of the original reasons for granting her anonymity still remain. And they still outweigh the traditional forces that suggest we name.

Perhaps the most valid reason has nothing to do with the accuser or Kobe Bryant or the state  of Colorado. Instead, the justification for anonymity resides in the hopes and fears of millions of rape victims out there who must decide if they will pursue justice.

Naming this woman now would  “compound what has already been an unmitigated disaster for rape victims,” says Dean Kilpatrick, director of the National Violence Against Women Prevention and  Research Center. He’s spent his career gathering data about sexual assault. One of the most interesting discrepancies he notes is that rape victims tell researchers they are terrified at the thought of public disclosure. They fear it more than sexually transmitted diseases. That fear is pervasive and paralyzing, despite the fact that newsrooms almost never publish such names unless the victim consents.

That fear is fueled by high-profile cases and reinforced by what turns out to be the exception to the rule.

Victims of a rapist who seems powerful or prominent stand to lose the most.  In an e-mail, Kilpatrick wrote that, based on the treatment Bryant’s accuser has received from the media and the courts,  “a woman would be a fool to report a rape involving a high-profile defendant.”

He added: “Publishing her name would complete the job of totally trashing her.”

Keep in mind that most rape victims are children or teenagers, people likely to have a distorted view of who is prominent or powerful. Is the school principal as powerful as Kobe Bryant? What about a teacher, a pastor or a stepparent?

Even if Bryant is acquitted, even if the charges are dropped, the justifications for naming his accuser are thin. They achieve little justice or journalistic purpose. Yet the harm, particularly when we examine the impact on current and future victims of rape, is immense.

Whatever you decide to do in your newsroom, the time to start the conversation is now, not as the breaking bulletins are coming in from the courthouse. My sense is some newsrooms will name her and others won’t. Some wire services may even deliver two versions of every story, one with the name and one without. It could be that late-night copy editors or week-end producers will have to make the call. They’ll do a better job if they’ve discussed with their boss or their peers which journalistic values should take precedence in this very complicated case.

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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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