The Washington Post has suspended a reporter who said she received death threats on Twitter after sending a tweet with a link to a 2016 story about the Kobe Bryant rape case.
The tweet from Post reporter Felicia Sonmez was sent shortly after news reports of Bryant’s death in a helicopter crash on Sunday and was met with vitriol from people online.
In a statement, the Post said Sonmez was placed on administrative leave while it reviewed whether her tweets violated the Post’s newsroom’s social media policy.
“National political reporter Felicia Sonmez was placed on administrative leave while The Post reviews whether tweets about the death of Kobe Bryant violated The Post newsroom's social media policy,” the Post’s managing editor, Tracy Grant, said in a statement. “The tweets displayed poor judgment that undermined the work of her colleagues.”
It’s not clear whether the Post was upset with Sonmez’s tweet about the Bryant rape case, which included a link to a 2016 Daily Beast story, or whether later tweets by the reporter may have broken the Post’s policies.
Sonmez in an initial tweet posted a link to a 2016 Daily Beast story headlined: “Kobe Bryant's Disturbing Rape Case: The DNA Evidence, the Accuser's Story, and the Half-Confession.”
The tweet quickly sparked tens of thousands of angry replies accusing Sonmez of insensitivity. Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, was also killed in the helicopter crash.
In her later tweets, Sonmez noted the death threats she was receiving over the initial post, and in one tweet she included the full names of some people who sent her emails, according to a report from Matthew Keys at The Desk.
Bryant was charged with felony sexual assault in 2003 after a 19-year-old woman working in a Colorado hotel accused him of rape. Prosecutors ended up dropping the case after Bryant’s accuser declined to testify. She later brought a civil lawsuit against Bryant that was settled out of court.
Bryant said the two had sex but that it was consensual. He later acknowledged the woman did not view the incident as consensual, and he offered her an apology.
Sonmez tweeted on Sunday that she was met with death threats after her tweet, and she called on people to remember deceased public figures in their entirety.
“Well, THAT was eye-opening. To the 10,000 people (literally) who have commented and emailed me with abuse and death threats, please take a moment and read the story — which was written 3+ years ago, and not by me. Any public figure is worth remembering in their totality, even if that public figure is beloved and that totality unsettling,” she wrote.
“That folks are responding with rage & threats toward me (someone who didn’t even write the piece but found it well-reported) speaks volumes about the pressure people come under to stay silent in these cases,” she added.
In an interview with The Washington Post's media critic Erik Wemple, Sonmez said was told by Grant that she was put on administrative leave because her tweets didn't pertain to her coverage area and that “your behavior on social media is making it harder for others to do their work as Washington Post journalists.”
Wemple also wrote that Sonmez had checked into a hotel out of concern for her safety.
If the Post were to suspend journalists who tweet about subjects off their beats, Wemple wrote that "the entire newsroom should be on administrative leave."
Sonmez told Wemple that not writing about the issue of sexual assault when it is part of a public figure's record has the effect of silencing survivors.
“I would argue that not ignoring a matter of public record is the way to go and making survivors feel seen and heard helps Washington Post journalists rather than making our jobs harder," she told Wemple. "We are more able to do our jobs because we’ve demonstrated to those survivors that we’re worthy of their trust. I’m a little confused. If The Post is arguing that letting those survivors feel seen makes other colleagues jobs harder, I’d appreciate an explanation.”