July 24, 2003

Naming Names

Mainstream news organizations are still not naming the woman who accused NBA superstar Kobe Bryant of raping her, but Geneva Overholser, the former ombudsman for the Washington Post and now a columnist for the Poynter Institute, says it's time they did. I agree.

She argues:

"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. Selecting certain categories of information and seeking to do social work by acting against this principle is dangerous territory. Clearly, we owe children special protection. Beyond that, who of us is wise enough to select -- out of all those who would prefer not to have their names in the paper -- the winning categories? A general obligation to share the information we have is our surest course." [ Read the whole column ]

Overholser has long been a proponent of naming rape victims. She was editor of the Des Moines Register in 1991 when it won Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for a series on surviving rape that named, with the victim's consent, a woman who had been raped. The Pulitzer board said the series prompted "widespread reconsideration of the traditional media practice of concealing the identity of rape victims."

Overholser also points out, as I did the other day [Read: Does the Blue Dot Work in a Dot-Com World ], that if protection of identity is the goal it is simply impractical in an age of omni-media to withhold a rape victim's name. She writes:

"Newspapers are not -- as they once were -- the gatekeepers of such information. The culture has changed. Details about the Kobe Bryant accuser are being bandied about by shock jocks and on the Net netherworld. Mainstream media stick to an outdated policy, which has turned into a conceit."

Overholser's colleagues at Poynter don't share her view. In a note in the feedback forum about Overholser's column, Bill Mitchell, a Poynter editor states that Poynter Online "is not naming the accuser we do not publish the names of accusers in such cases without their consent. This policy applies to comments posted to our Feedback area as well as articles written for the site. Names posted here will be deleted."

And Bob Steele, who teaches ethics at Poynter, told the Denver Post for its story about a Los Angeles talk radio host who has been naming the accuser for several days that "opinion should not cause great harm to other individuals and (he) is casting major aspersions against this woman. He is harming her, and that is irresponsible and unprofessional."

I agree with Overholser that the larger damage is done by withholding information. "Truth-telling does have its victims," she writes. "My own view is that recovery from difficult times is, like journalism, abetted by openness and hampered by secrecy. But the larger point is this: Openness serves society as a whole. It serves enlightenment and understanding and progress. And it serves the criminal justice system."

Links
 Geneva Overholser Name the Accuser and the Accused
 Denver Post L.A. radio show names Bryant's accuser
 Eils Lotozo, Philadelphia Inquirer Without naming names

Posted by Tim Porter at July 24, 2003 07:39 AM
Comments

I'm sorry Tim, but I think there are a great number of people who would find the concept of naming names as Overholser wants to practice it would only further alienate the public from journalism.

How many rape victims would have to be paraded before us, saying how the media perpetuated the rape by publishing the name?

Overholser writes: "Truth-telling does have its victims.

How quaint. How "tough love."

My own view is that recovery from difficult times is, like journalism, abetted by openness and hampered by secrecy. But the larger point is this: Openness serves society as a whole. It serves enlightenment and understanding and progress. And it serves the criminal justice system."

How enlightened. How forward thinking. How much more does journalism want to separate itself from the real world.

As for print journalism no longer being the "gate-keepers," that's fine. But just because Howard Stern decides to act like an ass doesn't mean we all have to wallow in the mud with him.

A more enlightened policy would be to seek permission from the victims. If the victim gives permission, then use the name.

Recall that most cases of rape do not involve such high profile figures as Kobe Bryant. They are cases of private individuals. I also find it laughable that the newspaper naming the victim would somehow aid the criminal justice system. Everyone in the courtroom knows the victim's name.

Posted by: bryan on July 26, 2003 07:47 PM
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