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.
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
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
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
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.