Bryant case tests media policy protecting ID of victims
To most of the public, she is known only as Kobe Bryant’s accuser, an anonymous teen whose photograph never appears in newspapers or on television.
Many of the details of her life – where she lives and goes to school, when she auditioned for “American Idol,” how she was rushed to a hospital for a mental health problem last winter – have been widely reported. Friends and acquaintances talk about her, offering snippets of insight and speculation. Still, her name is kept out of stories.
Yet the 19-year-old woman’s name has been broadcast on the radio to 60 cities by a talk-show host, and her identity – complete with address and phone number – has been posted on various Internet sites. The Globe, a supermarket tabloid, has run her photo, blacking out only the area around her eyes.
Media new and old are making the alleged victim in this most public of sexual assault cases fair game, angering some who say the spotlight is making her a victim all over again and drawing criticism from others who favor full disclosure.
Bryant was charged with felony sexual assault after his accuser told authorities he attacked her at a Rocky Mountain resort June 30. Bryant has claimed the sex was consensual.
The release of her name is an invasion of her privacy, said Krista Flannigan, spokeswoman for the prosecutor in the case and a victim advocate with experience in high-profile cases.
“”All assault victims’ names are supposed to be protected,” Flannigan said. “”It’s a safety and security issue, especially with higher profile cases. Once they are exposed, they really feel it’s another violation. The victim is revictimized.”
Sexual assault victims worry about being blamed or being judged, Flannigan said, and if people know who they are, they’re going to be subjected to that even more. The victim’s immediate circle of family and friends already know what has happened, she said, “”but if it’s released to the public, then there’s the fear of the scrutiny and being judged by the public until it comes to trial.”
Colorado is one of 33 states with a victim’s rights amendment, and rape shield laws in many states protect the identity of alleged sexual assault victims. Virtually all American newspapers and news organizations, including The Associated Press, have policies against releasing the identities of those victims and have not named Bryant’s accuser.
That policy is being challenged by the use of her name on a Los Angeles-based talk show hosted by Tom Leykis that is broadcast to 60 cities, by several Web sites that have identified her, and by free speech advocates who argue justice and fairness are better served by naming accusers.
“”In the crime of rape, it is time we named the accuser as well as the accused,” says Geneva Overholser, who initiated the challenge to the practice of withholding the names of rape victims in 1989, while serving as editor of The Des Moines Register. The paper won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 1991 for reporting by Jane Schorer that, with consent, named a woman who had been raped.
Now on the faculty of the University of Missouri’s journalism school, Overholser called the policy on rape victims “”unworkable,” adding that “”it’s a journalistic aberration to do this.”
In an essay for the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla., Overholser notes that rape is surrounded by cruelty, including the painful scrutiny of the victim and loathsome insinuations about her character.
“”Cruelty feeds on ignorance,” she says, “”And I have yet to see ignorance effectively addressed by secrecy. … When journalists depart from the commitment to telling the whole story, to naming names, to getting at painful truths, we tread on dangerous ground. With very few exceptions – national security, individual cases in which loss of job or loss of life will clearly ensue – the best journalistic principle is to tell the public what we know.”
Beyond giving special protection to children, she argues, the surest course for the media is to share information.
Leykis said he revealed the alleged victim’s name because it isn’t fair to know the name of the accused without knowing the name of the accuser. In 1993, Leykis was accused of assaulting and threatening to kill his fourth wife in Boston, charges that were dropped when he agreed to enter a program for spouse batterers in California. His publicist was out of the office on Friday and did not return a call seeking comment.
The Globe’s editor, Candace Trunzo, defended the use of the photo of Bryant’s accuser and the two-page profile of the woman.
“”The accusations of sexual assault against Kobe Bryant is a newsworthy matter of tremendous public interest,” Trunzo said in a statement. “”The Globe is a national news tabloid.”
The boom of reporting on the Internet, some of it without the same editorial controls and policies of traditional media, has led to inaccurate information being shared by millions of readers.
The family of one young woman whose photographs appear on the Internet as Bryant’s accuser has hired an attorney in hopes of stopping her image from being circulated online. Attorney Sienna LaRene said the parents, Bob and Beth Matthews of Eagle, aren’t looking for financial damages.
“”They just want this to stop,” LaRene said. “”This is a wildfire out of control, and the only way to stop it is people to do the right and responsible thing.”