'Rolling Stone' UVA Debacle Is A Referendum on Sloppy Journalism, Not Survivors of Sexual Assault
On November 17, Rolling Stone published a scathing indictment of the University of Virginia's administrative mishandling of years of sexual assault cases. The article — which ran 9,000 words — began with, and often came back to, the story of Jackie, a UVA student who was allegedly brutally, gang-raped at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity during the beginning of her first year of school. The article generated a swift response, igniting a national conversation about campus mishandling of sexual assault and causing UVA to suspend fraternities and fraternity-related parties.
Recently, however, the article's authenticity has come under fire, with many claiming that reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely didn't push hard enough to corroborate Jackie's account with her alleged rapists. For a while, Rolling Stone stood by Erdely, Jackie, and their handling of the piece. Then suddenly, and seemingly without notice, that all changed.
In a note to readers published on December 5, Rolling Stone editor Will Dana explained that the magazine was withdrawing support of Jackie's account.
Because of the sensitive nature of Jackie's story, we decided to honor her request not to contact the man she claimed orchestrated the attack on her nor any of the men she claimed participated in the attack for fear of retaliation against her. In the months Erdely spent reporting the story, Jackie neither said nor did anything that made Erdely, or Rolling Stone's editors and fact-checkers, question Jackie's credibility...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.
For anyone concerned about the broken discourse surrounding sexual assault — discourse that places undue burden on survivors, discourse that slants toward skepticism before empathy — Rolling Stone's note is especially disappointing. The note smacks of victim-blaming: "our trust in her was misplaced." Nowhere in the apology does Rolling Stone cop to their culpability in the matter — to the lack of fact-checking, to the lack of effort in corroborating Jackie's story, to its insistence on going through with telling the story even when Jackie asked that her account be rescinded.
If the Rolling Stone debacle proves anything, it isn't that stories about campus rape tend toward myth — it's that outlets reporting them, especially in investigative, lengthy cover stories, need to be especially diligent in their pursuit of accuracy before a story is published: Anything less is a disservice to survivors.
Statistics on false rape accusations are hard to come by, due in large part to the chronic underreporting of sexual assault, but estimates suggest that they are exceedingly rare (around 2.2 percent) — so it's important to remember that even if Jackie's story was fabricated (and there is still no definitive proof, at all, that this is the case), that is the exception, not the rule. Statistics about campus rape are startling: 1 in 5 women will experience sexual assault during their undergraduate career. And sexual assault is rampant within fraternities: More than 25 percent of victims report that the perpetrator was a member of a fraternity.
By failing to thoroughly fact-check the story before publication, Rolling Stone has turned an important indictment of campus sexual assault into fodder for victim-blaming. The University of Virginia's history of lenient punishment for students charged with sexual assault is clear, with or without Jackie's story. While Jackie's account certainly bolsters the piece's underlying thesis, Erdely writes about numerous other students who faced an administration that was unhelpful at best, manipulative at worst.
An especially damming account of Rolling Stone's editorial judgement comes from a Washington Post story that claims that Jackie, after being interviewed at length, even requested that her story be excluded from the feature. If true, Rolling Stone chose to tell Jackie's story against her explicit wishes — a choice that can only be tied, one imagines, to their desire to present the most shocking narrative possible.
That was a huge mistake on Rolling Stone's part. What they failed to grasp is that all sexual assault is horrific; all rape is violent and grotesque. If through their "extensive reporting and fact-checking," Rolling Stone couldn't verify even the lowest-hanging of fruit — that the accused rapist was actually a member of the fraternity, or that he worked where he claimed, or that the fraternity had really thrown a party that night, things that don't implicate Jackie — they should have chosen another narrative that would still bolster their story about UVA's administrative shortcomings. Instead, they forged on seemingly full-speed ahead, publishing — possibly against the victim's will — a horrific account of sexual assault, only to throw that victim's testimony under the bus when challenged.
Rolling Stone should have known that the words and claims in this story would carry an enormous weight. Our society still looks at claims of sexual assault through a lens of incredulity and skepticism — if not for its own integrity, then out of deference to survivors, Rolling Stone should have gone above and beyond to make sure its story wouldn't merely stoke these destructive fires.
Instead, it prioritized an engrossing narrative over accuracy — and when inconsistencies in that narrative were revealed, the Rolling Stone staff blamed the victim, rather than its own mishandling of the story. In doing so, purposefully or not, it shifted the spotlight from the mishandling of sexual assault cases on campuses across America to the tired myth of the false rape accusation. The facts support the story's overall concern — it's too bad Rolling Stone didn't try harder to find them.