Web Blurs Ethics, Privacy Rules

The decision by a Web site to post the name of Kobe Bryant's (search) accuser has many asking once again if the Internet can be tamed, and if privacy and ethics laws have disappeared in a new age of communication.

"The Kobe Bryant story may be a watershed in American media," said Neal Gabler, author of "Life the Movie" and a "Fox News Watch" panelist. "The Internet has picked up this story and run with it."

Eric Burns, host of "Fox News Watch," calls the Internet "wild and uninhibited and often inaccurate," comparing it to an Old West frontier town "before the sheriff got there."

Most news organizations have strict policies against publishing sexual assault victims' names. But an independent site recently ignored those standards, followed by a sports talk radio host who announced the 19-year-old's identity on his show.

The last few weeks have seen the posting of a supposed photo of the accuser (it was of someone else from her hometown) as well as countless false reports — including one claiming she danced naked at a party and a second saying she had filed a previous sexual harassment complaint against a co-worker.

"They were completely fabricated reports," Gabler said. "There is an appetite to get information about this case that drives the Internet to provide things, even when they're baseless and untrue."

It's the latest example of the Web feeding frenzy that characterizes modern media culture.

"It's changed journalistic practices," said Burns. "It's making privacy for subjects a less respected part of the journalist's credo."

Many established Web sites, including Foxnews.com, follow the same journalistic guidelines as their print and broadcast counterparts. But independent sites routinely feel no obligation to meet such guidelines.

Some established news media outlets often find themselves scrambling to keep up — sometimes with embarrassing consequences.

"The competitive pressures are so great that mainstream news outlets are being forced to pick up material that even two or three years ago they would not have touched," Gabler said. "They've become more vulnerable."

The inability to recognize Internet-based hoaxes has been another problem for some outlets.

Several ran a recent report alleging the heavy metal band Metallica (search) was suing a Canadian band over the latter's use of "Metallica-branded" E and F chords. The allegation was a joke.

"Hoaxes happen with more frequency and are more widespread with the Internet," said Daniel Green, managing editor of the Court TV-operated site, The Smoking Gun.

TSG is among those to have changed the landscape of what is readily accessible to the public — publishing accurate and verifiable police reports, court records and other documents involving the rich and famous.

"We have expanded the scope of investigative reporting," Green said.

The Smoking Gun has posted everything from the criminal complaint against Bryant to Ben Affleck's voting records — which revealed he hadn't been to the polls in a decade, despite his 2000 stumping for Vice President Al Gore.

TSG also exposed the arrest record of Tom Leykis (search), the radio shock jock who announced the Bryant accuser's name on air. Leykis was arrested for domestic violence and entered an abuser's program back in the 1990s.

"Since we've been on the scene, people in the public eye get away with a little bit less," said Green. "They don't get as much of a free pass as they used to."

Web sites like TSG have turned the concept of the public record on its head.

"The Internet is forcing us to wrangle with the idea of public records becoming truly public," said Shane Ham, senior policy analyst at the Progressive Policy Institute (search). "This information has always been available, but it's a lot different when you can pop it up on the Internet in a couple of seconds. We need to think about possibly redefining what is publicly available information."

Others believe the Web has simply capitalized on an existing trend.

"The Internet is a continuation of a media culture that's been growing a long time," said Jim Harper, editor of the Web-based privacy think tank Privacilla.org (search). "The kind of thing that used to be back-fence-style gossip can now get to millions and millions of people."