When the only unknown is victim's name
High-intensity coverage raises questions about age-old stigmas - and holding the media accountable.
If, by now, you don't know the name of the woman who accused Kobe Bryant of rape at a Colorado resort June 30, it's probably because you're not interested.Skip to next paragraph
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It's certainly not because her identity has been well shielded.
Spend five minutes on Google, and you'll find not only the alleged rape victim's name, but her yearbook photos, phone number, e-mail address, friends - even the address and phone number of the nurse who examined her afterwards.
So far, the news media, with the exception of California radio host Tom Leykis, have mostly stuck by policies of withholding names of rape victims - but they've been quick to give every other personal detail of her life: where she went to college, the town she lives in, what her house looks like. They've aired and printed rumors that she was "hospitalized for her own protection," overdosed on drugs, bragged about the encounter with Mr. Bryant, and tried out for American Idol. For the past month, the media have camped out at her Colorado home.
The Bryant case has swiftly become the O.J. Simpson (or Gary Condit or Lacy Peterson) event of the summer. Wednesday, when Bryant showed up in tiny Eagle, Colo., to hear charges against him, reporters nearly outnumbered residents. Photos wrongly identifying Katie Lovell, another Eagle resident, as the accuser were so widely posted online that she went on CNN and Good Morning America last month to set the record straight.
But beyond the media circus - or the question of what actually happened at the Cordillera Lodge and Spa - loom the larger ethical issues involved in sexual-assault cases, particularly ones with such high-profile defendants: What privacy is owed to victims? Is it fair to name the accused but not the accusers? Are personal details off limits? Has the Internet made this type of privacy a relic of the past?
"The celebrity angle, the intense competition, and the Internet have all kind of lined up to create a situation where it makes it very difficult for journalists to remember what their standards are for covering sexual assault," says Kelly McBride, who teaches journalism ethics at the Poynter Institute in Florida.
One of the most consistent standards, held by nearly every media outlet in the country, is to grant rape victims a degree of anonymity. Most began withholding names in the 1970s, as feminist groups stirred awareness of sexual assault and its stigma. The idea is that since rape is such a violation of privacy, and since shame around it lingers, publishing victims' names would add insult to injury - and might dissuade some from filing charges. It's one of few areas where the media voluntarily stays silent.
The Bryant case, however, has revived those questions. Mr. Leykis justified naming Bryant's accuser by saying that, if rape is about violence and not sex, the victim shouldn't have stigma or shame. Others have wondered whether withholding victims' names actually contributes to rape's stigma, cultivating a silent shame. Many have also raised the issue of fairness to the accused: False charges of rape can, after all, ruin a life.
Such arguments often surface in high-profile celebrity cases - a fact that discourages Helen Benedict, author of "Virgin or Vamp: How the Press Covers Sex Crimes." "Terrible double standards come into play," she says.