US journalism school the Poynter Institute may revise its ethics guidelines following the resignation of Geneva Overholser, who left after a crucial name was edited out of her column for Poynter Online.

In her column on 9 September, Ms Overholser said that it was time to name the person that accused US basketball star Kobe Bryant of sexual assault.

The accuser had already been named online and on radio, said Ms Overholser, as well as being mistakenly named by Kobe Bryant's attorney in court. However, the Poynter institute removed the accuser’s name from the article and the opening line read:

"(Name withheld by editors) is taking her case against Kobe Bryant out of the criminal court and into civil court in Colorado, and it is time her name became standard media usage."

Ms Overholser, a professor at Missouri School of Journalism, has written many times about the practice of suppressing the names of victims in rape and sexual assault cases, and feels strongly that it adds to the stigma of these crimes. Journalists, she said, cannot decide who to protect in a criminal trial.

In her column for the Washington Post on 4 September Ms Overholser wrote: "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."

Editors at Poynter said they removed the name from her column over concerns for the accuser who had made some efforts to protect her identity, such as filing the case under the name 'Jane Doe'.

In light of this decision Ms Overholser withdrew as Poynter columnist and said: "There is little to recommend continuing to write the column for Poynter unless I can say what I believe."

Bill Mitchell, editor of Poynter Online, told dotJournalism that editors had asked Ms Overholser for some additional reporting, which she refused.

"I believe Geneva would be the first to acknowledge that opinion columns must be rooted in strong reporting," said Mr Mitchell.

"Our disagreement lies in the kind of reporting required for this column: I believe it would be irresponsible to name the accuser in this case without talking with her first - or at least making an attempt to do so. Geneva disagrees."

The decision to remove the name was taken by a team of 25 members of Poynter faculty and staff, who discussed whether the site would link to an article that named the accuser, if any previous stories had named people in similar situations, and whether the organisation had guidelines in place for this kind of issue.

"We adopted new ethics guidelines earlier this year but did not include a specific provision on the issue of naming. We're working on a possible revision now," said Mr Mitchell.

Poynter's existing guidelines on naming subjects say that decisions should be made case by case. The editors concluded that Poynter should aim to encourage debate over this kind of ethical question, and that other journalists and editors were likely to follow the lead taken by Poynter over Ms Overholser's story.

Kobe Bryant is one of the highest paid sportsmen in the US. On 2 September, prosecutors dropped sexual assault charges against him because the accuser refused to testify in court. Mr Bryant denies the charges, saying sex was consensual, but still faces a civil lawsuit.

More news from dotJournalism:
Q&A: Steve Outing, senior editor at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies
Secrets of readers' eyes revealed

See also:
Poynter Institute:
Washington Post coverage:
New York Tmes coverage:

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