On November 18, 2014 Rolling Stone published a story about rape on campus at the University of Virginia written by Sabrina Erdely. The story starts with a graphic recounting of a alleged gang rape of an 18-year-old woman with the pseudonym “Jackie” and the events that she remembers and the aftermath are woven throughout the piece. The story is a call to arms about campus rape. A woman alleges she was raped by seven men in a fraternity ritual (while two others looked on) and a dispassionate and cold campus administration looked the other way. Is there anything more horrific? Stories of other women who have experienced alleged sexual assault at UVA are also interwoven in the piece as is the gang rape of Liz Seccuro in 1984 at UVA. Thirty years have gone by and not much has apparently changed for women at UVA, a school known for partying.
The story covers a lot of important information. How rape on campus is common and how survivors are dismissed. That some women at UVA undeterred by the blind eye of their administrators have formed One Less, a sexual-assault education organization and support group.
The author claims she didn’t do any fact checking about “Jackie’s” alleged rape because “Jackie” has asked her not to. “Jackie” was afraid of her attackers (reasonable), however, failing to fact check even basics raises several concerns that apparently no one at Rolling Stone considered but was blindingly obvious to many, many others and has now diluted the importance of the story, that campus rape is a problem.
If a reporter provides details in a story, like dates and places and small groups of identifiable people, that are being promoted as journalism then fact checking is required. If you’re going to picture the specific fraternity where you allege a gang rape took place in the cover art, well, that might really suggest fact checking is in order. If you can’t fact check then you can’t include that detail. It doesn’t mean those things didn’t happen, but journalists have to maintain a standard. I recently wrote a piece for a national publication and had to exclude something that was personal experience because there was no possible way to fact check the event. That’s ok, that’s why I have a blog and that is where that piece of information lives. But Rolling Stone didn’t publish a first person story on a blog, this was a journalist reporting on rape and injustice at a specific university. If you accuse an identifiable group of people in a national magazine of committing a heinous crime then you must do some due diligence and tell that group you are writing about them and hopefully hear what they have to say (or at least print the no comment) and fact check some basic details.
A good example of doing it right is the Toronto Star piece on alleged serial abuser Jian Ghomeshi. The Star had multiple women claiming Ghomeshi attacked them all with very similar stories, they had copies of messages proving Ghomeshi knew the women, but still were concerned about libel laws. They had approached Ghomeshi multiple times to comment and because he declined they felt they couldn’t proceed with such a one-sided story. Until of course Jian Ghomeshi himself issued a statement about his version of the events and then the Toronto Star ran the story. Waiting until he provided validation that something did indeed happen (his version of course being consensual) gave much more credence to the story. Because the Toronto Star’s allegations were so tight and included so many women reporting almost identical stories it empowered more to speak up. So it can be done right.
What of Jackie’s concern about privacy and fact checking? Surely if you are going to give the terrible and intimate details of your rape to the public haven’t you already thrown all privacy aside? However, “Jackie” wanted her story dropped from the piece, but Rolling Stone refused.
People remember details differently, especially when they are being assaulted. I think I could spot my attacker on a street in a heart beat, and yet could I? I’m sure I know exactly what happened and yet other women have been sure, pointed their assailant out in court sending him to jail only to find out years later with DNA testing that he couldn’t possibly have been the assailant. Eye witness testimony is unreliable, a fact that trial lawyers depend on and that is why rape victims are crucified in court. If a lawyer can convince the jury that one detail is wrong, then an element of doubt has been introduced and the alleged victim is now victimized by the legal system.
How this comes across to me is that a journalist and an editor wanted a sensational rape story. Not just any rape story, apparently a regular rape wouldn’t be horrific enough. This was the number one party school the year “Jackie” alleges she was raped, so a party tie in was essential. If Rolling Stone was really going to shake thing up at UVA then a gang rape at a fraternity, the epitome of campus rape culture, the rapiest of rapes, well, that would do the trick. Especially at UVA because it ties back to the events of 1984.
Reading what was written how could we see it as anything but the zealous search for the horrifically sensational?
“Shut up,” she heard a man’s voice say as a body barreled into her, tripping her backward and sending them both crashing through a low glass table. There was a heavy person on top of her, spreading open her thighs, and another person kneeling on her hair, hands pinning down her arms, sharp shards digging into her back, and excited male voices rising all around her. When yet another hand clamped over her mouth, Jackie bit it, and the hand became a fist that punched her in the face. The men surrounding her began to laugh. For a hopeful moment Jackie wondered if this wasn’t some collegiate prank. Perhaps at any second someone would flick on the lights and they’d return to the party.
“Grab its motherfucking leg,” she heard a voice say. And that’s when Jackie knew she was going to be raped.
Every rape is horrible and terrible and brutal and the fact that any woman’s sexual assault could have fit the Rolling Stone headline, A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA, was clearly lost on the editors.
Rapes rarely result in convictions because victims fight to be believed by friends, family, their schools, the public, the police, prosecutors, judges, and juries. Their stories are picked apart, in public, as “Jackie’s” is now.
Inaccuracies in “Jackie’s” story doesn’t mean she wasn’t raped, it means in their zeal to publish such a shocking story Rolling Stone ignored basic journalistic principles. Our society doesn’t see 10,000 alleged victims, we see 10,000 falsely accused men so if you’re going to write about rape you must not only have the tightest of stories, but you must also assume everything you write about the alleged victim can and will be used against her and every other alleged victim that comes after her.
What will people remember from the Rolling Stone story? Not that rape is a problem at UVA, not that women are banding together to support each other, not that the administration doesn’t care, not that rape goes unreported and worse, if reported unpunished, but that an alleged victim was wrong about something and to our society, where rape is concerned anyway, that means nothing she said is truthful.
It’s hard enough for rape victims on (and off) campus as it is and Rolling Stone just made it harder.