Practicing dangerous journalism

November 06, 2003|By Jeffrey Scott Shapiro

GAINESVILLE, Fla. - The Globe supermarket tabloid recently broke a sacred journalism covenant by publishing the full name and photograph of the alleged victim in the Kobe Bryant case.

Earlier this year, the Globe published a July cover story that also featured the woman's photograph. Although she was recognizable to her friends and acquaintances, the tabloid shielded her eyes with a black bar and her name was not revealed.

In the Nov. 11 edition, the Globe took no such precautions with the woman's safety. After receiving multiple death threats at her home and discovering from FBI agents that they had thwarted a plot to kill her, the alleged victim has fled from her home state of Colorado to a faraway location in order to evade harassment and danger. As she tries to start her life anew, she must now face the risk that her newest acquaintances and neighbors will know that she has potentially suffered as the victim of a horrific crime.

When a woman reports a man for sexually assaulting her, her identity must be cloaked in secrecy so that she is protected. Women who report men for sexual crimes often face retaliation from their assailants, friends of the accused or even other sexual predators.

In 1989, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Florida Star vs. B.J.F. that even when "a newspaper publishes truthful information which it has lawfully obtained, punishment may lawfully be imposed ... when narrowly tailored to a state interest of the highest order."

It is difficult to imagine that protecting the life of a human being, particularly when there is already ample proof that she has been threatened repeatedly, is not a state interest of the highest order. If anything, protecting the lives of the innocent is precisely the type of service that government is responsible for.

Quite coincidentally, the Globe's decision to use the alleged victim's full name followed the Oct. 9 preliminary hearing in the case.

During the hearing, Mr. Bryant's defense attorney, Pamela Mackey, referred to the alleged victim by her real name six times in public court. By doing so, Ms. Mackey may have legally opened the door for journalists to publish the woman's full name under the "fair and accurate reporting privilege." Under the privilege, reporters can even republish defamatory or private facts once they become public in court.

A question arises whether an attorney with Ms. Mackey's experience was unaware of this fact when she said the alleged victim's name. She was repeatedly admonished by Eagle County Judge Frederick Gannett, who eventually adjourned the hearing because of Ms. Mackey's comments. He admonished her again in private chambers before reconvening.

Although Supreme Court rulings make it difficult to punish a journalist for identifying a rape victim, it should be beneath the integrity of any reporter to do so - even when he or she writes for a supermarket tabloid.

Jeffrey Scott Shapiro, who worked for the Globe for two years, is studying constitutional law at the University of Florida School of Law.

Columnist Ellen Goodman will return Monday.

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