Late on Sunday, the Columbia School of Journalism released its report on Rolling Stone's horrifying feature "A Rape on Campus" — a 9,000 word exposé that was ultimately retracted. Journalist Sabrina Rubin Erdely's piece on sexual assault and the alleged systemic silencing of victims at the University of Virginia garnered nationwide outrage before it was unraveled by reporters at The Washington Post. In light of the Columbia report, it's clear that "Jackie," the main protagonist of the narrative, was an unreliable source (which is not to say that Jackie lied or wasn't assaulted; just that the details of her story, as told to Erdely, weren't accurate in full). But Rolling Stone editors pushed forward anyway, the report found, leading to Sunday night's unfortunate retraction of the whole feature.
In a statement released to The New York Times Sunday, Erdely, a longtime investigative journalist, explained her misjudgement:
Over my 20 years of working as an investigative journalist — including at Rolling Stone, a magazine I grew up loving and am honored to work for — I have often dealt with sensitive topics and sources. In writing each of these stories I must weigh my compassion against my journalistic duty to find the truth. However, in the case of Jackie and her account of her traumatic rape, I did not go far enough to verify her story. I allowed my concern for Jackie’s well-being, my fear of re-traumatizing her, and my confidence in her credibility to take the place of more questioning and more facts. These are mistakes I will not make again.
While Erdely's statement placed the blame largely on herself, Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner made a comment to the Times that placed the onus on Jackie. Wenner told the news source that Jackie was a "really expert fabulist storyteller" who was, according to Wenner, able to manipulate Erdely and the fact-checking department at Rolling Stone.
Wenner added that the magazine "cut corners" for Jackie, as Erdely and her editors tried to both protect and respect Jackie's story. "[Erdely] was willing to go too far in her effort to try and protect a victim of apparently a horrible crime," Wenner told the Times.
However, even Charlottesville Police Chief Timothy Longo, who handled the criminal investigation into Jackie's alleged gang rape, admitted at a press conference in March that the lack of evidence and accurate details "doesn’t mean something terrible didn’t happen to Jackie."
What exactly happened to Jackie is still a mystery, yet many critics and journalists — including those at the Columbia School of Journalism — are refraining from blaming her in any way for this journalistic disaster. As Columbia University Journalism School Dean Steve Coll said at a press conference on Monday, "This failure was not the subject or source’s fault as a matter of journalism. ... We disagree with any suggestion that this was Jackie’s fault."
In the report itself, Coll and his colleagues, Dean Sheila Coronel and post-graduate researcher Derek Kravitz, wrote, "The failure encompassed reporting, editing, editorial supervision and fact-checking." And Coronel again said on Monday that it would not be ethical to place the blame on Jackie.
Coll and Coronel revealed at Monday's press conference that Erdely felt "betrayed" by Jackie. As described in the Columbia report, Erdely alleges she wasn't aware of the inaccuracies in the story until after the story went to print and Jackie was unable to provide the correct last name of the student accused of facilitating the gang rape.
But what does Wenner's comment do for victims of sexual assault, who time and again have to "prove" their rapes in the public sphere? After all, people still debate what counts as a "legitimate rape," and this very idea that some sexual assaults are more "valid," "proper" or "well-founded" than others can harm victims as they navigate legal and medical avenues both on and off campus. For example, politicians have tried to block rape victims from receiving Medicaid funding for abortions in the past, attempting to limit the procedure to "forcible" rapes and force women to "prove" the assault took place.
And in the face of public opinion, rape victims will certainly be held to an even higher level of scrutiny, even from their peers. "Rolling Stone’s claim that their mistakes all came out of concern for a young rape victim are irresponsible," Jessica Valenti wrote at The Guardian. "It will have a resounding impact on those working to end sexual violence."
Yet journalists also have a duty to verify; to let both sides comment, or at least give both sides the chance to comment; and to not mislead your readers. This puts journalists who write about sexual assault in a tough spot: You need to be respectful of your source, but your source also needs to be scrutinized. If not, well, you get a lot of "failure of journalism" tweets as a result — and possibly a lawsuit.
Let's remember that April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. As Karen Baker, director of the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, wrote in a recent op-ed, we need to move beyond the "false rape" debate, which she believes is stopping us from working toward ending sexual violence:
This distracting debate stalls efforts to solve an issue that is undeniably prevalent, destructive to individuals, families and communities and - most of all - preventable. The first step is acknowledging a problem exists and understanding its overall impact.
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