Like many other people who've been transfixed by the unraveling of Rolling Stone 's University of Virginia rape story, I stayed up late Sunday night to read Columbia Journalism Review 's point-by-point analysis of everything that the magazine and the story's writer, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, had gotten wrong. I was glued to the lengthy take-down, which detailed the mistakes made by Rolling Stone staffers while researching the alleged UVA campus gang rape, for a lot of reasons — professional curiosity, morbid curiosity — but mostly, I read the report out of sadness. As I read the piece, I felt that Erdely and Rolling Stone's many lapses in judgment and the bad calls they made while reporting the piece didn't come from laziness, egotism, or ignorance — they came from the magazine's efforts to be sensitive to the alleged victim. And that really is something we could use more of.
The past few years have marked the first era in American history where the mass media has begun to take rape seriously. Columbia University student Emma Sulkowicz ended up on the cover of New York Magazine for her protest against her college's mismanagement of her sexual assault; Time has published pieces covering the existence of rape culture in the U.S.; trigger warnings have become so common that their ubiquitousness is now a source of controversy within many online communities; and the women accusing Bill Cosby of sexual assault are, for the most part, being treated with respect and dignity by the media.
And yet, despite these steps forward, rape coverage that attempts to give equal weight to the stories of the accuser and the accused often stumble, because proving the victim's account using traditional journalistic fact-checking techniques is so difficult, and frequently ends up placing blame on the victim. I believe that Rolling Stone was attempting to fight this tendency in their approach to the UVA rape story — and, unfortunately, their failure on this front will probably serve as a serious setback for sensitive journalistic coverage of rape.
In recent years, a number of high-profile rape cases have been covered with shocking insensitivity by major media outlets. In 2011, a New York Times article about the gang rape of an 11-year-old girl worked overtime to blame the victim and fret about the well-being of the rapists, rather than the victim of the assault. Similarly, a lot of media coverage of the 2013 Steubenville rape trial seemed more interested in the "promising futures" of those accused of rape, rather than the well-being of the woman who reported the assault, despite the fact that this case involved overwhelming social media evidence.
Rolling Stone's decisions, I believe, didn't come out of thin air — they were an attempt to counteract this tendency. “Ultimately, we were too deferential to our rape victim; we honored too many of her requests in our reporting,” Erdely told the Columbia Journalism Review. The decision to use a pseudonym for victim Jackie's alleged attacker, rather than pursue an interview with him, or the failure to reach out to the friends that Jackie said had turned their backs to her, may come off as eye-popping journalistic failures — but I believe that these moves were made in an attempt to try to develop a new form of rape coverage, one that didn't act as if the alleged attacker's word carried as much weight as the victim's.
My own memories of my sexual assault are bleary and only half-there, and wouldn't cut the mustard for any vetted piece of journalistic reporting. I wondered, reading the CJR analysis, what would I do if a reporter wanted to fact-check my own rape?
It's easy to say that Erdely should have automatically contacted Jackie's alleged attackers, but it's not so simple. As Emma Sulkowicz noted in a February interview with Mic, having a reporter contact her alleged attacker made her feel targeted.
"Normally I don't respond to people who use my rapist as collateral in order to make me talk to them," Sulkowicz told Mic. "It's an awful feeling where this reporter is digging through my personal life." Erdely veered too far in the other direction in her decision to not confirm Jackie's attacker's existence; but how do we develop journalistic standards for covering rape that don't inherently retraumatize the victim?
All of this victim-blaming rape coverage goes on in a world, of course, where many people still become victims of sexual assault. And victims are often forced to deal with fall-out from more than just the attack — they must deal with the potential disbelief of family, friends, peers, and law enforcement: According to the Rape Abuse & Incest National Network, sexual assault victims are four times more likely to contemplate suicide than the average person, and three times more likely to suffer from depression. Ninety-five percent of sexual assaults on campus go unreported, according to a 2010 study by the Center for Public Integrity, and much of this is due to the reluctance of victims to deal with being told by strangers that they aren't the perfect rape victim.
If I had to guess, Rolling Stone's decisions, while journalistically indefensible, were made in an attempt to break this mold. As anyone who read the CJR piece can tell you, Erdely doesn't come off as lazy, or reluctant to do her job; she comes off as someone who is sensitive to the fact that rape is different from other crimes, in part because of the way we pick apart the victims when they go public (no one ever asks a robbery victim why they had such a nice TV if they didn't want it stolen).
When the CJR piece notes that Erdely asked Jackie to be put in touch with her friends who were allegedly with her the night of her assault, Erdely's tentative phrasing — claiming that she wanted to speak to them “about corroborating that night, just a second voice?”— reminds me of how hard it is, as a writer, to ask someone who has suffered to fact-check their trauma.
First-person narratives of sexual assault have flourished on the Internet, I believe, because it's tough to hold them to standard journalistic litmus tests, where the end goal is unearthing the hard facts. Sexual assault cases are so rarely cut-and-dried, so often viewed as simply two people's words against each other, that writing about them in a traditionally balanced, journalistic way can come off as cold and cruel — because the emotions and circumstances in play often don't leave a paper trail.
My own memories of my sexual assault are bleary and only half-there, and wouldn't cut the mustard for any vetted piece of journalistic reporting. I wondered, reading the CJR analysis, what would I do if a reporter wanted to fact-check my own rape? Would I cooperate with them interviewing my attacker, who would probably tell the world that I was drunk, easy, and totally into having sex with him?
I didn't tell anyone what happened that night, or for months afterwards, because I was convinced that I was somehow culpable for my attack — but how bad would that look on paper? I had empathized with Jackie so intensely when the piece was first being pulled apart, because I knew how sloppy memories of rape can look when put to standard tests of journalistic accuracy. I was perhaps wrong in assuming that all of the questions people had about Jackie's story could be attributed to the ways trauma can shake up your brain. But that doesn't mean that the only solution is to treat a rape case — or report on one — just like any other crime.
As the Columbia Journalism Review piece notes, "It would be unfortunate if Rolling Stone’s failure were to deter journalists from taking on high-risk investigations of rape in which powerful individuals or institutions may wish to avoid scrutiny but where the facts may be underdeveloped."
I think this is not only unfortunate, but also unavoidable. Almost every woman who comes forward with assault claims is already treated as if they were making it all up. I feel like the fall-out from the Rolling Stone piece will make publications less likely to support victims whose stories aren't "perfect," more reluctant to talk to survivors who don't want to name names (the CJR piece recommended against the use of pseudonyms in rape coverage), and more fearful about taking on stories about sexual assault where the narrative is complicated or incomplete.
Which is a shame, because the stories of many sexual assaults are either complicated or incomplete. To skip over them because they don't offer a clear journalistic narrative is a disservice to both sexual assault survivors, and a society that is finally beginning to listen to their stories.