Why we named A.J. Johnson in story on rape allegation

Less than two weeks ago I wrote a column discussing the News Sentinel’s handling of an accusation of sexual assault against University of Tennessee running back Marlin Lane in April 2013. At that time we decided not to write a story about the incident based on our guidelines for identifying suspects who are not actually charged with crimes. The Tennessean in Nashville recently made the incident public for the first time.

In the column I promised that we would be discussing the guidelines within the newsroom and reviewing how they were applied to the Lane case. I also stated: “In today’s environment, with the new Title IX guidelines for universities dealing with sex-assault accusations and the heightened societal concern, it is possible, perhaps likely, that the call would have gone otherwise.”

Linebacker A.J. Johnson on Oct. 11, 2014.

Linebacker A.J. Johnson on Oct. 11, 2014.

Little did I know that the issue would re-emerge so quickly. Monday, in compliance with the Title IX guidelines, UT issued a statement that a rape allegation involving a UT student had been reported. Soon other media outlets in town were quoting anonymous sources as saying that all-SEC linebacker A.J. Johnson was a suspect. The News Sentinel also was told anonymously that Johnson was a suspect, but as a matter of policy we do not attribute such defamatory information to unnamed sources.

Later in the day, however, football coach Butch Jones acknowledged at a press conference that the allegation involved UT football players, and not long after that, the university announced the suspension of Johnson and defensive back Michael Williams. We wrote a story tying the rape allegation to the suspensions, something we never did in the Lane case. Lane also was suspended, although he never was charged and ultimately was reinstated on the team.

So what was different this time?

First, the rape allegation was announced by UT. Then, Jones said publicly that UT players were involved. Meanwhile, there was widespread speculation, rumors and reports about which players were implicated. Finally, the incident arose at a time of heightened public concern about the issues of campus sexual assault and domestic and sexual violence by football players.

The upshot was that, although Johnson and Williams have not been charged with a crime – and may never  be – we have linked them to the allegation, even though we still don’t have on-the-record or documentary information that they actually are suspects in the case.