When the only unknown is victim's name

High-intensity coverage raises questions about age-old stigmas - and holding the media accountable.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

In the Central Park jogger case, for instance, the media were nearly universal in keeping the investment banker's name out of print. But just two years later, when William Kennedy Smith was accused of raping a woman at a party, that restraint fell like dominoes: First the British tabloids, then NBC News, then The New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and other major papers printed her name. All claimed they were simply following competitors' leads, but Ms. Benedict says that move - as with the Bryant case - was primarily based on who the accused and accuser were.

Charles Gay pleads innocent to such inconsistency. The editor and publisher of the Shelton-Mason County Journal, in Shelton, Wash., may run the only paper in the country that always prints rape victims' names - no matter their ages.

It's a policy he's been roundly criticized for - and has gone to court to defend - but he stands by it both as a matter of journalistic consistency and for helping erode the stigma of rape. By withholding names, he says, "you are sending the message that we're protecting you because there's something wrong with you."

Others - including a few feminists - agree with him. After the Central Park jogger case, Karen DeCrow, a former president of the National Organization of Women, wrote in USA Today: "Pull off the veil of shame. Print the name."

But most papers agree that while they'd like to ease shame around rape - and may seek out victims willing to talk - it's too soon to name them all. National surveys show that rape victims' No. 1 concern is people knowing they've been attacked - even ahead of worries about sexually transmitted diseases.

A tougher question is whether concerns about victims' privacy have gotten so extreme as to compromise defendants' rights. After all, being accused of rape brings stigma too - a fact not lost on Bryant's supporters. Mr. Gay often asks critics to imagine it's their father or brother or son on trial.

That's the strongest argument for naming victims, says Ms. McBride of the Poynter Institute. But in the end, she concludes, "this is one of the few cases where minimizing harm has overshadowed fairness, and that is because the harm is so great, and so prevalent."

In the Bryant case, privacy questions have grown far more complex than whether to print the accuser's name. Many have noted the hypocrisy of withholding a name while disclosing every other detail - many of which seem designed to discredit her.

Listening to the news has been dispiriting, says Benedict - evidence that little has changed since the days of Mike Tyson and William Kennedy Smith. The press has "just been doing the same old thing. It's inaccurate legally, it's terribly unfair to her, and it breeds the kind of discussion ... that's unfortunate," she says. Ultimately, she'd like to see that reflexive analysis deconstructed. "If we want to destigmatize rape, we want to talk about what it really does to people," she says. "Think about how rape is covered in the forum of war. Their credibility is not questioned. Why do we change the rules when it's at home?"

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