Specializing in the representation of crime victims, women and children.

A Critique of the Columbia Journalism Review’s Analysis of Rolling Stone’s “A Rape on Campus” Story

By Wendy Murphy    Apr. 08, 2015


Maybe even more disturbing is that not a single established women’s rights organization has spoken out or even asked obvious questions about why neither Rolling Stone nor the CJR has established to any degree of certainty that “Jackie” even exists, and if so, whether she in fact reported a gang rape to police or UVA officials – EVER.

Consider the following:

The CJR criticized Rolling Stone for failing to determine where certain information came from and whether any of it was true.  These are fair criticisms because they point out the importance of journalists printing only reliable information. But the CJR did many of the same things it criticized Rolling Stone for doing wrong. For example, the CJR complained that Rolling Stone had inadequate proof that there ever was a “gang rape,” but the CJR itself failed to obtain adequate proof of a far more basic fact – that “Jackie” even reported a gang rape – ever – to anyone.

If “Jackie” did report a gang rape, it would be recorded in a police report, which would be available to Rolling Stone and the CJR because police reports are public records that cannot be withheld from public view unless a legitimate exception applies. The “ongoing investigation” exception is commonly cited by public officials as a reason not to release police reports but there is no “ongoing investigation” in this case and Charlottesville Police Chief Tim Longo’s claim last week that an investigation is “ongoing” strains credulity.  Even if such an exception were applicable, it cannot be used to justify the withholding of an entire file. Indeed, public records laws mandate disclosure of so much of the information as can be released without compromising the investigation.  It is NEVER acceptable to withhold an entire file because it is legally impossible for cops to prove that an investigation’s integrity can only be preserved with complete secrecy of everything. This generally means that all documents are released with sensitive information redacted.

The CJR knows better than most that a journalist’s access to documents is critically important in a case where a person claims they “reported” a sexual assault. Yet the CJR, like Rolling Stone, didn’t even try to obtain access to key documents by filing public records requests and challenging overbroad denials.  Why did the CJR not think it important to even point out that police and university files are the most reliable sources of information in this case, and that neither Rolling Stone nor the CJR obtained access to those documents?

The CJR could have and should have at LEAST pointed out that it is a common tactic for public officials (and public universities) to cause “investigations” to be opened when they get in trouble because it gives them an excuse to refuse to turn over documents to the public under the “ongoing investigation” exception.  Even non-journalists know about this trick, yet the CJR makes no mention of it in its review, and nowhere describes how this practice routinely stymies journalists trying to get access to information for a story.  Simply put, the fact that the CJR failed to mention such an important issue raises serious questions about its role in this mess, and the integrity of its findings.

Did the CJR even file a public records request with police? If so, when? What did they ask for? What was the police response? If the “ongoing investigation” exemption was cited, why didn’t CJR file an appeal to the appropriate state agency to force release of redacted documents?

If “Jackie” reported the matter to UVA officials, the school would also have a file, and while they might decline to release it citing student privacy laws, there is no privacy restriction on the release of the FACT that a report was made, and the nature of the claim (e.g., sexual assault vs. aggravated sexual assault.)  Indeed, such information must be released to the public in UVA’s annual Clery Act Report.

Did the CJR even verify that “Jackie” exists?  Some stories say a UVA student with the actual name “Jackie” does exist, and is the person identified as “Jackie” in the story, but that makes no sense.  Why would “Jackie’s” true first name have been used if, as Rolling Stone claims, they were so concerned about her emotional well-being they acquiesced to her every request, including that they not contact the accused students?  If “Jackie” really exists, and was THAT fragile, wouldn’t Rolling Stone have called her “Mary” out of concern that using her real name would expose “Jackie” to needless harm? If Rolling Stone were willing to avoid key facts to protect “Jackie’s” well being, why wouldn’t they have been eager to conceal “Jackie’s” true name for the same reason?

The CJR states that they interviewed several of “Jackie’s” friends.  Were these interviews in person? Where and when did they take place?  Who else was there?  If the “friends” weren’t interviewed in person, how does CJR even know they’re actual friends of “Jackie?”  Did the CJR ask for proof of friendship, or even proof of Jackie’s existence by at least asking the “friends” to show CJR a photograph of “Jackie” or some kind of proof that she was ever an actual student at UVA?

The CJR claims it also spoke with “Jackie’s” lawyer, but it refused to name her.  Surely the CJR can appreciate the hypocrisy inherent in criticizing Rolling Stone for not identifying witnesses, while CJR did the same thing by not naming the lawyer who claims to be speaking for “Jackie.”  What if the attorney is employed by UVA? The public has a right to know, and the CJR, while claiming to support the value of truth, doesn’t seem to care.

The “Jackie” story was given to Rolling Stone by UVA employee Emily Renda, a critically important fact that was pointed out in the CJR review, but CJR nowhere notes the journalistic defect in Rolling Stone’s decision not to reveal that it got the “Jackie” story from UVA.  Nor does the CJR criticize Rolling Stone, as it should, for accepting the story from UVA given that many other UVA sexual assault cases were offered to Rolling Stone from sources independent of UVA, and had backup documentation available to establish the basic facts, but Rolling Stone rejected those stories and chose to feature the story hand-selected by UVA instead.  As journalism reviews go, wasn’t it the CJR’s job to point out that Rolling Stone should have been more skeptical of a story served up to them BY UVA?  Why did the CJR decline to point out such an obvious and important flaw?

And why didn’t both publications at least demand documents from UVA on the grounds that they could hardly run with a story given to them BY UVA without insisting that the source of the story back-up its claims with documentary proof?

UVA officials cited student confidentiality laws as a reason not to release documents showing EVEN the FACT that a gang rape was ever reported by “Jackie,” but neither Rolling Stone nor the CJR noted the hypocrisy of UVA officials speaking openly about some aspects of the story, such as the fact that “Jackie” went to counseling.  Isn’t information about someone being in therapy more “confidential” than the documented FACT of a gang rape being reported on campus?

UVA Dean Nicole Eramo specifically told the CJR that confidentiality laws prevented her from talking about “Jackie” story, but the CJR nowhere pointed out that UVA employee Emily Renda talked to Rolling Stone about “Jackie” story while employed by UVA. The CJR claims the Rolling Stone reporter reached out to Renda while Renda was still a student at UVA, and that Renda was promptly hired by UVA after her graduation in May 2014, but this claim is demonstrably false and raises questions about whether the CJR bothered to fact-check and corroborate its own story while complaining about Rolling Stone’s failure to do the same.  Emails obtained by The Daily Caller indicate that Renda started speaking with Rolling Stone in June 2014, after she was already a UVA employee, and that Renda continued to talk about the “Jackie” story with Rolling Stone thereafter.  Irrespective of when Renda first started speaking with Rolling Stone, why didn’t the CJR at least ask UVA officials why Renda, as a UVA employee, was allowed to talk to Rolling Stone about the “Jackie” story, but Eramo was forbidden to do so by student confidentiality laws, or why Renda, as a UVA employee, could ignore student confidentiality laws and make statements about “Jackie’s” gang rape, but Renda could produce no documents to confirm that a gang rape was ever reported?  Irrational confidentially claims from UVA should have been noted by the CJR, but weren’t.

To its credit, the CJR included mention of the fact that Renda GAVE the story to Rolling Stone, but it nowhere criticized Rolling Stone for NOT mentioning the same critically important fact in its story.  Nor did the CJR note the importance of Rolling Stone failing to report that after Renda delivered the story to Rolling Stone, she was hired by UVA.

The CJR also failed to address the role of the Charlottesville Police Department in distorting the public narrative.  Chief Timothy Longo announced at a press conference last week — oddly treated as “breaking news” on CNN — that he interviewed 70 people and obtained records from UVA but found “no evidence” of gang rape.  At the same press conference, he failed to note that he lectures at UVA and his wife is employed there, as was his daughter until recently.  Longo also failed to reveal that he has never filed criminal charges against a UVA rapist. Why didn’t the CJR think any of this was important to mention at least in terms of enhancing the public’s understanding of the underlying biases in a story the CJR claims is seriously lacking in concern for the truth?

The CJR review needs its own review because it failed to ask and answer the most important questions. Indeed, the public now has good reason to doubt the claim that “Jackie” ever reported a gang rape because two seemingly credible publications failed to prove otherwise, and both articles spilled an awful lot of ink refusing to address this fundamental fact.

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