Not long ago, I overheard a snippet of conversation among my college students. Another professor had talked about rape in class that morning. The professor didn’t talk about the prevalence of sexual assault on college campuses or the egregious way that universities were addressing (or, rather, not addressing) reports of rape. Instead, a student said, she warned the young men in the class to be careful: Women make shit up.
My heart sank. Here we are in the middle of a crisis of sexual assault on college campuses, as institutions like mine are evaluating and revamping how they handle offenses, and these young women (who, statistically, are at risk) were confronted with that message in the classroom. It was yet another reminder of how much doubt is out there waiting for victims if they speak up.
In that regard, Friday’s apology by Rolling Stone magazine, in which it all but retracted its stunning and graphic story about a gang rape in a fraternity house at the University of Virginia, is devastating. It’s a devastating blow to journalists like me who believe in the power of the narrative writing technique used in this story. And it causes real harm by bolstering the belief that “women make shit up.”
The 9,000-word piece by Sabrina Rubin Erdely that the magazine published Nov. 19 documented in horrific detail the violent gang rape of a freshman named Jackie at Virginia’s prestigious flagship university by seven young men at a frat house in 2012. Combined with other testimonials about sexual assaults at UVA that received weak responses from university officials, and accentuated with the bawdy lyrics of an old (and rape-y) fight song, the story was a salacious blockbuster that had an immediate impact: The fraternity named in Jackie’s allegations was vandalized, all fraternity activities on campus were suspended, police began investigating the two-year-old alleged crime and the university’s governing board passed a statement of zero tolerance for sexual assault.
But as quickly as the story had impact, it also was met with doubt. Critics pointed out that the reporter never talked to the men accused and may never have verified they existed, nor did she interview Jackie’s friends who allegedly discouraged the beaten and bloodied victim from reporting the rape because it would put a crimp in their social lives.
Some feminists were outraged at the criticism of the piece. They accused the journalist who first raised doubts about the story and others of being rape-deniers. Erdely even made the absurd contention to the The Washington Post that it was missing the point—which was how poorly UVA handles sexual assault (not whether the incident the entire story was built around ever happened).
As the questions piled up from writers at the Post, Slate, The New Republic, The Los Angeles Times and other outlets and the credibility of the story crumbled, Erdely and her editors tried to justify, with conflicting accounts, why they hadn’t followed basic tenets of journalism. On Friday, the fraternity at the center of the case rebutted specific details and the Post published a thorough take-down of the piece that included Jackie’s account of trying to back out of the story and her friends’ new doubts as to the veracity of her claims.
Rolling Stone retreated—with a giant dose of victim blaming. The original apology published Friday (which has been altered after an outcry) didn’t take responsibility for failing to do due diligence. Instead, it put all of the blame on the young woman who, friends believe, was traumatized by something, even if the details about the incident at the fraternity are off. “In the face of new information, there now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie’s account, and we have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced,” managing editor Will Dana wrote in the original note to readers.
Journalists operate under an ethics code that helps guide our decision-making on stories. The most important principle is to tell the truth. That includes the responsibility to verify information independently and provide as much information as possible about sources so readers can judge their reliability and motives. As a matter of practice, journalists generally don’t identify the victims of sexual assault—a concession rarely offered to adult victims of any other crime—because of the trauma and stigma associated with the offenses. That practice is rooted in another key ethical principle to “minimize harm.”
Rolling Stone now says that Erdely didn’t interview Jackie’s assailants because she asked her not to:
Because of the sensitive nature of Jackie’s story, we decided to honor her request not to contact the man who she claimed orchestrated the attack on her nor any of the men who she claimed participated in the attack for fear of retaliation against her.
That’s an agreement that most journalists, including myself, would never make; and any such agreement should have been disclosed in the story.
Not only that, but the story discussed in detail (with quotes) the reaction of Jackie’s friends as they escorted her back to her dorm following the incident. Those friends could have provided verification of the details that Jackie shared so the account didn’t rest on a single source. According to the Post, Erdely didn’t interview those friends, and one of them now says Jackie told a different story about what happened at the time. I don’t know under what reasoning Erdely didn’t seek them out.
We have a serious problem in this country—in our criminal justice system and on our college campuses—when it comes to believing rape victims. The fact that their stories are so often doubted and their credibility questioned is one of the reasons victims often don’t report the crimes or pursue criminal remedies. And that, in turn, has fostered more distrust and created a broken system. When perpetrators are not held accountable in a court of law under the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard, doubts persist about the accusations.
It was not wrong, as some feminists contended, for journalists to question the reporting in this salacious story (though I certainly don’t know all of the critics’ motives). It would not have been wrong for Erdely and her editors to have maintained a healthy level of skepticism and attempted to verify Jackie’s account either. Telling emotional, troubling and true stories helps readers understand problems in our society and, as reaction to this story in recent weeks shows, it can effect change.
But any journalist who has interviewed people about past events knows that memories get blurry. People get dates wrong. They fill in the blanks of their tales with information they learned or guessed afterward. They admit, when pressed, that they are not as certain about some details as they appear to be at first blush. And some people (not just women) lie. Rolling Stone should have worked harder to lock down the details of the incident (or chosen not to use it), instead of hanging all the responsibility on a troubled young woman who may be the victim of a life-altering attack, may not have a clear memory of the incident or may be fibbing for reasons we’ll never know.
By not remaining vigilant in verifying the truth and in corroborating the story, the magazine did a huge disservice to its readers and to the ongoing conversation about rape on college campuses. In its attempt to treat the victim gingerly and “minimize harm,” it did the opposite: It has caused real harm and provided a high-profile example for those who doubt the truthfulness of women who come forward.