The Internet has been branded as the ethical swampland of journalism. Even large, respected news organizations are willing to risk more racy, questionable information on their Web sites first, then print or air the story later. The Net is home to gossip maven Matt Drudge and wannabe Drudges abound. But despite the effort of many respected online outlets, the broad perception is that a newspaper such as The Washington Post has more scruples than Fark.com. This story will not change that perception -- but will likely make it worse.
For those living in a cave with Saddam: Los Angeles Lakers basketball star Kobe Bryant was recently charged with felony sexual assault in Eagle County, Colo. The mainstream media, as is their custom, did not release the name of Bryant's accuser, though that didn't stop them from giving her age, her high school's name, her college's name, her love of music, or the fact that she auditioned for American Idol. They also weren't shy about airing the opinions of her various teenage friends.
While no mainstream TV or newspaper outlets reported her name, it only took a few days for it to appear online. And nationally syndicated talk radio host Tom Leykis said her name on the air earlier this week.
Surprisingly, it was not first published at an Internet chat room or fly-by-night operation. Her name, though spelled wrong, first appeared on EURweb.com, a site run by popular urban radio personality Lee Bailey that's been around since '97.
When Bailey filed his report, he used the word "reportedly" before her name. Bailey told me the name was passed on from a "frustrated reporter in Colorado," upset that they couldn't reveal her name. Bailey said he wasn't totally sure of the name so left in the "reportedly."
Bailey said the decision to run her name wasn't easy -- he ruminated over it for a few days. "I saw how Kobe was being excoriated," he said. "I wondered why this girl was being protected while he's being hung out to dry. In our system, you're supposed to be innocent until proven guilty. But not everyone was playing by the same set of rules."
Bailey thinks the online world plays by a different set of rules, too. Asked whether online publishers live by a different set of ethics and standards than print and broadcast media, he said flaty: "There are no standards online -- it's like the wild, wild West."
Others agreed with his point of view, and went further. Eliot Javdan, who graduated from the University of Southern California last year, runs BinaryReport.com and further researched the woman. (Warning: The site today posted the gruesome pictures of Saddam Hussein's dead sons.) He found the correct spelling of her name and posted her e-mail address, phone number, home address and even a link to a satellite photo of her neighborhood (with a pushpin marking her house).
Javdan considers his site a more balanced version of Drudge Report, going beyond a conservative slant. He said all of the personal data on Bryant's accuser was public, and he linked to all his sources (including the EURweb story). After an "Inside Edition" story surfaced that the woman was receiving death threats via e-mail, her personal info was deleted from Javdan's site, except her name -- though links to the personal details are still there.
Javdan would not comment on the change in details, but explained his rationale for running the info in the first place. "I am not sure if Kobe Bryant is being falsely accused, but what I do know is that his image has already been tarnished," he said via e-mail. "No matter what people say, Kobe's name will always have an asterisk beside it because of this incident. The fact that the accuser remains in hiding but uses friends and family to contact the media to tell what she really feels is wrong."
Blaming the victim
Blackathlete.com columnist Gregory Moore wrote a scathing attack on the media circus that's started up and how the "trial of the victim has begun." He noted that despite the media's decision not to publish her name, "the Internet has afforded anyone with halfway decent detective skills ... the few links necessary to retrieve the information about the young lady, her family, real estate holdings, etc."
Like most mainstream media, Moore's wire service did not publish the woman's name, address, phone number or e-mail, as BinaryReport.com did.
"Web sites like BinaryReport.com do have an agenda," he told me. "They are trying to show their support for Bryant, but what they are doing is destroying a person who may very well be a victim of an assault case. They are not looking at the 'big' picture. The fact that they are trying to use freedom of the press as a reason to post such information is flat out ludicrous and unethical by any journalistic standard that I know of."
The folks at the Society of Professional Journalists couldn't have put it better themselves. The SPJ Code of Ethics includes a section on minimizing harm, and treating subjects as "human beings deserving of respect." Specifically, it notes that journalists should "be cautious about identifying juvenile suspects or victims of sex crimes." Gary Hill, the chair of SPJ's Ethics Committee, told me that there are many factors to be weighed when deciding to run names in these cases. "What is the quality of the evidence?" he asked. "Is it simply he said/she said or was the killer taken into custody with classmates at his feet and the smoking gun in his hand? Does the victim want his/her story told?"
Hill explained the reasoning behind the longtime ethical standard: "We consider it a way of minimizing harm to the victim. Whether right or wrong, our society still attaches a stigma to these victims. Some blame the victim, saying she 'was asking for it,' or dressed provocatively or was 'gold digging.' This becomes even more evident when you
enter the celebrity world of famous and highly paid athletes.... The implications are that the woman sought out the sex because of the player's fame or money or to gain some sort of legal advantage.... While some think it
is unfair for the accused to be named while the accuser is anonymous, most journalists think the ethical course is to minimize harm to the alleged victim."
Bloggers duel it out
Cynthia Stone, media director for the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault, strongly opposed the woman being named online. "We're just appalled by this," she told me. "This case is the poster child for how badly people treat victims of sexual assault. They're being vengeful without knowing what happened. The Net is a fabulous tool, but it's not a court of law. And remember, this case is not this woman versus Kobe Bryant; it's The People versus Kobe Bryant."
Stone said there was a similar case last fall in Colorado. The Daily Camera in Boulder ran the name of a woman in a criminal case, and no other mainstream outlet followed suit. Again, her information surfaced online, according to Stone. "We registered our disappointment with the Camera, and hope people will do the same thing with these sites now."
Meanwhile, bloggers in the Los Angeles area covering media and legal issues have begun debating the ethical issues in the Bryant case. LAObserved's Kevin Roderick, who worked at the Los Angeles Times as a reporter and editor for 20 years, is opposed to naming the accuser or even linking to sites that name her. He pointed out the irony of her information being on the Web while Bryant's e-mail address, phone number and home address are not. Roderick is locked into a heated debate with fellow L.A. blogger Luke Ford, who used to cover the porn business online -- Drudge-style.
Ford argues that times have changed and that women have the power to wreak havoc by bringing charges. He said the name of the accuser should be in the media. "But I was appalled to see her home address and everything online," he added. When I asked Ford how he would feel if the victim was a friend, he admitted that "I wouldn't feel the same. I would want to protect my friend. But I don't expect the world to bend to my will."
Roderick and Ford have differing views of online journalism ethics as well. Ford compares the power of Web sites to offline media as a water gun to a real gun. He thinks instant corrections or deletions online makes standards different. But Roderick thinks online media should strive to do better. "Before any online media linked to BinaryReport, they should at least have satisfied themselves that the site and the info was genuine," he told me via e-mail. "Too many online chauvinists make the absurd presumption that something online is more credible."
Roderick said that in one sense, online journalists have it harder than their offline counterparts -- in many cases, they have no institutional legal backup. "Each person who chose to spread this woman's personal info made the choice, and if anybody has to answer it's them," he said. "There's certainly no online ethic that freed them to post and circulate her home address, phone, pic and e-mail without being called on it. It was their personal choice -- and in most cases a choice to show her less respect than they desire for themselves. I don't know many bloggers who post their own phone number or even give their private e-mail address."
Indeed, Javdan doesn't post any personal details about himself on the BinaryReport site, and I had to find his info via the WhoIS database.
Legal eagles online
There's one factor that might be pushing the alleged victim's details online: a boost in site traffic. Lycos reports that searches relating to the case are 15 times more popular than any other topic online. In fact, the name of the accuser would be the No. 1 most searched term if Lycos actually counted those (it won't publish her name either).
There have been traffic boosts even for blogs that did not name the woman. Jeralyn Merritt, a defense attorney in Denver, saw traffic to her TalkLeft Weblog soar to 10,000 visitors per day due to interest in her posts relating to Bryant. She believes that the identities of both the alleged victim and alleged rapist should remain private until the trial. While she refused to run the woman's name or info on her blog -- or link to BinaryReport -- she agrees with their point of view.
"We remember clearly who the victim is in this case," she wrote in one comment on TalkLeft. "In our professional and personal opinion, it's Kobe Bryant. We're becoming more convinced every day." Merritt told me she thought the sheriff in the case acted hastily.
SoCalLawBlog's Jeffrey Lewis, a business litigation attorney in Irvine, Calif., also saw a bump up in traffic after he posted items on the Bryant case. He said he is upset about the release of personal information of Bryant's accuser, and railed against talk radio's Tom Leykis for saying her name on the air. "If this woman who has accused Kobe turns out to be a liar (and that is a big if), so what?" he said via e-mail. "We should still live in a world where rape victims can feel comfortable reporting even if 10 percent of the accusations are false."
Lewis also saw the double-edged sword of the Net. "On the one hand, it is good for the public to have access to raw data, like being able to read the actual complaint filed against Kobe," he said. "On the other hand, the Internet can be a cesspool of rumor, and once a falsehood is generated, it is extremely difficult to be wiped away."
So BinaryReport's Javdan might be able to erase offensive material the next day, but the hit to his credibility will live on -- as will cached data. The push and pull for independent online journalists is this: The Net brings unprecedented freedom, a printing press for everyone; but if this power is abused and ethical boundaries are crossed, the online world will continue to have that dank, swampy reputation.
Or, as Blackathlete.com's Moore concluded, "this column will only buy some popcorn at that circus; not become part of the three-ring act that will take place." If only more online journalists would follow his lead.
OJR Assistant Editor Gary Baum contributed to this report.