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Moving Beyond Naming Names

By Geneva Overholser
Saturday, September 4, 2004; Page A31

The drama of Kobe Bryant and the woman who accused him of rape in a little Colorado mountain town 14 months ago has moved to new terrain. So, too, should the media discussion of rape.

In a tumultuous news year, journalists kept the nation's gaze focused on a story that seemed to have everything: privacy vs. celebrity, power, race and gender, sex, truth and falsehood, media excess and legal murkiness. Throughout the saga, there has been a great deal more heat than light emanating from Eagle, Colo. Now Bryant's accuser has taken the controversy into the more public sphere of civil court. This is the moment for responsible media to move beyond a long-unproductive -- and now meaningless -- debate over whether Bryant's accuser should be named, to take on the critical question of how such sensational stories can be covered in the public interest.


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Though the criminal case against Bryant has ended, resolution is not a word that comes to mind -- and not only because Bryant's accuser has filed a civil suit. This case has thrown the nation's rape shield laws into the air. These rules arose from years of harrowing injustice, countless cases based on the ugly notion that the woman must have "asked for it." Every detail of her sexual past became fair game to prove it. Correctives arose, but clarity has been elusive. In a society deeply ambivalent about the balance of power between men and women and troubled about how to weigh one account versus another in a complex world of changing sexual mores, this case has created still more uncertainty.

Most painfully unresolved are the lives of those involved. A 19-year-old front-desk clerk filed charges, only to see her life threatened and all sense of normality lost. A megastar in sports has his name inextricably linked to a loathsome crime.

Neither of these two can claim any shred of privacy. Yet one remains, officially at least, unnamed. It is past time the media lifted themselves out of this narrow controversy about whether to name those who bring charges of rape.

There have long been powerful arguments against the aberrational decision not to name names of adults who bring charges in this crime, and this crime only. Names are a key element of journalistic responsibility and credibility. Any departure from this journalistic principle had better be unquestionably sound, for journalists are not equipped to do social work.

Protecting children, for example -- both perpetrators and victims of crime -- is even-handed, with a clear imperative. To add this one category of adults to those afforded protection is to vote on guilt or innocence. This is not for journalists to do. Other questions, too, arise again and again: Would naming rape victims cause fewer reports to police? Does naming twice-victimize them? Does not naming contribute to underreporting of rape in the media? Does not naming participate in the stigma -- the cruel notion that somehow the woman is implicated? These are painful and difficult issues, but all are trumped by this one fact: Journalists cannot choose the one adult in a criminal trial who deserves protection.

Into the old debate now comes a new and practical element: There is no real protection. Big newspapers and network television decline to use the name. What has that meant for her? Radio shock jocks and Internet bloggers use it at will -- some portraying themselves as heroes of fairness and equal justice. More important, nearly every possible assault on her privacy and her emotional state has come her way.

Now she has opted to take her case to civil court, a far looser and less regulated environment. Her voluntary step further into the public limelight makes appropriate a unified move by editors to cease the conceit of this naming taboo. Thus freed from a debate of little meaning, journalists could move on to discuss a terribly meaningful one: how to cover rape trials with sensitivity, balance, fairness, a concentration on fact over rumor. That is the kind of journalism that determines whether a controversy like this one in Eagle helps a society resolve a set of troubling issues, or only makes them worse.

The writer is a professor at the University of Missouri School of Journalism.


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