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Custer County Courthouse

Custer County Courthouse in Miles City.

Today's story about a lawsuit against James "Doc" Jensen and Custer County Schools raises so many questions.

Many of those questions will likely be answered in the lawsuit during the coming months. Some may never be answered. And some of your questions may involve how The Gazette is reporting the story and how we're presenting it.

Here are some of the questions you may have about The Gazette's coverage of the emerging Jensen suit:

Why are the alleged victims unnamed?

Generally speaking, news outlets, including The Billings Gazette, do not name alleged victims of abuse or crime. Because they are victims, they did not choose to become part of this legal action, and identifying them could compound their trauma. Furthermore, if other victims are out there — and attorneys in this case believe there are many others — it could stop them from coming forward and getting help. 

Doesn't calling them "victims" when no court has made that determination make an unfair judgment?

In this case, The Gazette uses the term "alleged victims." These are men who have come forward to describe a pattern of repeated sexual abuse against them by Jensen. While no court or law enforcement official has made that determination, we generally afford the status until a court can make a determination so as not run the risk of holding victims up to ridicule or more trauma. 

How can we trust that the anonymous sources are real and credible?

Anonymous sources rightly get pilloried when the media employs them. People believe an anonymous source is lying or fabricated because no identifying information is given. 

Most news organizations have stringent guidelines about when to use anonymous sources. The Gazette requires four criteria for using an anonymous source:

  • The identities must be known to The Gazette and verified.
  • The person has a credible fear of danger or harm if his or her identity is made public.
  • The person must have information that can be gained in no other way.
  • The person must have information that has a compelling public interest.

In this case, The Gazette has spoken in person with five alleged victims. The Gazette knows their names and their identities have been verified by their attorneys. Other details about the victims that could identify them, like occupation and current hometown, have also been left intentionally vague. 

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What purpose is served by some of the specific, graphic detail?

This story recounts how allegations of systematic, ritual sexual abuse of children happened during the course of decades in a place that should have been safe — at a school. Recently, as more child sexual abuse in society has come to light, leaders and community members have had to develop a better understanding of how those who harm children operate, and what must be done to ensure those same circumstances never happen again. 

Jensen's case is unusual in terms of the huge number of students affected, but also the methods he used to allegedly entice minors into situations where they could be sexually abused.  

What processes went into writing this story?

Like many stories, the process begins with a tip. From there reporters make phone calls and do research. In this case, allegations of child sexual abuse aren't enough. Rumors — even alleged victims — may not be enough for us to take the step of writing. Instead, because three different lawyers and at least 18 victims came forward to join in filing a lawsuit, and because that suit is now a part of the public record, we believe the story is more credible than a rumor.

Keep in mind: The Gazette talked to five of these men who are part of the lawsuit. We did not publish the story until after court papers had been filed. 

How was this story edited?

After the story was drafted, writer Chris Jorgensen put this through a series of editing checks that included at least a half-dozen fellow reporters and editors reviewing and contributing to the story. Everything from a misplaced comma to a question about a word choice is reviewed. Parts of the story were also fact-checked with attorneys in the case, along with other legal experts and some of the alleged victims. 

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Editor

Darrell Ehrlick is editor of The Billings Gazette.