The CJR Urges Biased Journalism in Sexual Assault Cases

The Duke lacrosse case represented an almost textbook example of how key elements of the media (notably the New York Times) should not cover sexual assault cases. Uncritical acceptance of Mike Nifong’s version of events, undisguised sympathy toward accuser Crystal Mangum, an utter lack of skepticism about key procedural issues presented by Mangum’s defenders.

Yet according to the Columbia Journalism Review, the Times‘ approach is exactly how journalists should cover sexual assault cases. Under a teaser tweet of “tips . . . before you report on sexual assault,” the CJR recommends a piece by Alexis Sobel Fitts on the “right way to write about rape.” Applied to events on campus–where sexual assault cases routinely lack due process, and in which the allegations of accusers rarely are tested either through a criminal investigation or a medical examination–the CJR‘s recommended guidelines would be disastrous.

Fitts turns for guidance to Claudia Garcia-Rojas, described by CJR as “an activist and advocate from Chicago.” In her analysis of how the media covers sexual assault cases, Garcia-Rojas purported to discover “leading language, scant statistics, and a whole lot of victim blaming.” Since this portrayal came in an article about journalistic language, let’s start with the obvious: before trial, an accuser is not the “victim,” unless the journalist has chosen to pronounce judgment from the start.


Along these lines, Fitts, paraphrasing Garcia-Rojas, offers the following advice to reporters: “Make sure your story won’t compromise the safety of the survivor. Also consider the perpetrator, especially if he or she hasn’t been convicted.” How can an accused person be a “perpetrator” if he “hasn’t been convicted”? The CJR doesn’t explain. And does Fitts belief that the mere filing of a criminal complaint (or, in the case of most college allegations, not even filing a criminal complaint at all) transforms an accuser into a “survivor”?

Fitts (or Garcia-Rojas through Fitts; this portion of the article isn’t entirely clear) also criticized the use of “shaky statistics” in coverage of sexual assault–though she doesn’t identify any such statistics. Perhaps she was referring to the claim that one in four or one in five college-age women are sexual assault–a “statistic” that would yield the absurd result of the typical college campus having a higher rate of violent crime than Detroit. Yet this sort of “shaky statistic” often appears uncritically in the press.


In the rare instances in which a reporter gets to interview an accuser, Fitts, paraphrasing Garcia-Rojas, urges reporters not to “ask too many incendiary ‘why” questions.” A reporter asking skeptical questions? Apparently not. And reporters should steer clear from words that “insert shame and uncertainty into quotes”–such as “alleged.” That appears even when describing the alleged events: “Garcia-Rojas recommends a blunt description of actions, such as, ‘He forced his penis into her mouth.'” And how, before trial (or in the case of college complaints, without benefit of a criminal or medical investigation) should a reporter be able to conclude exactly what happened.

Apparently, that’s the type of “incendiary” question that the CJR wants reporters to avoid.


  • KC Johnson

    KC Johnson is a history professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author, along with Stuart Taylor, of The Campus Rape Frenzy: The Attack on Due Process at America's Universities.

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3 thoughts on “The CJR Urges Biased Journalism in Sexual Assault Cases

  1. For a journalism school to teach that the sort of slanted journalism advocated here is good is like an economics department teaching that the labor theory of value is true.
    Apparently, journalism has been taken over by ideological zealots, much as education, anthropology, and some other fields have been.

  2. When it comes to alleged sex offenses, too many journalists become stenographers for purported victims and their paid advocates and parrots for police who are looking to build a case against the accused and who won’t admit to weaknesses in the evidence at that stage. Reporters almost never interview the accused or his attorney or even suggest that there might be more than one side to the story.
    Worst of all are local television news reporters who slip into hysterical overdrive with alleged sex crimes. Journalists often, and perhaps most of the time, treat alleged attacks as undeniable rapes. And their notions of investigative journalism in sex cases consist of getting sound bytes from women who live in the purported victim’s dorm about how scared they are and adjusting their hair while waiting to go on the air to tell the scary story. Teasers such as “Rape on campus–details at 6” snag ratings.
    The problem is that the casual reader/viewer assumes the reporter has actually done some investigation beyond just copying what s/he was told by an interested party. When they hear that a rape occurred, silly them, they assume a rape occurred, and that the accused must be guilty.
    Before the facts are in, branding the accuser a “victim” is every bit as unjust and irresponsible as branding the accused “the wrongly accused party.” We will never see the latter description in a major U.S. daily; we see the former on a regular basis, and it is at least as appalling.
    Add to this the fact that the “victim” is always unnamed while the “perpetrator’s” identity is splashed all over the news. In the Google age, if a young man is wrongly accused, every time he goes for a new job until the day he dies his prospective employer will judge him by the irresponsible journalism that suggested he committed rape on the basis of an untested accusation. The smear is indelible, and it’s enough to send most employers looking for less damaged goods.
    The community of the wrongly accused deserve more outrage than there is. Thank you for this article, Prof. Johnson.

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