[Content note for rape]
On November 19, 2014, Rolling Stone published a lengthy and damning piece on the handling of sexual assault on college campuses, centering around a University of Virginia student, pseudonymously identified as “Jackie,” and her alleged gang-rape by members of one of the school’s fraternities. It was striking and stomach-turning — the attack, the response from fellow students, the response (or, more accurately, lack thereof) by university administration depicted in that story.
It was also, the world would later learn, almost entirely unsubstantiated. After the piece was examined, dissected, and criticized by numerous news outlets (including a heavily referenced examination by the Washington Post), Rolling Stone backed off of the story, first throwing Jackie under the bus by saying that “[their] trust in her was misplaced” and later revising their statement to conclude that “these mistakes are on Rolling Stone, not on Jackie.”
A new report by the Columbia School of Journalism, commissioned by Rolling Stone back in December, meticulously outlines those mistakes. Rolling Stone published the report, “‘A Rape on Campus': What Went Wrong?“, on their Web site, with an introduction from managing editor Will Dana that included the following:
This report was painful reading, to me personally and to all of us at Rolling Stone. It is also, in its own way, a fascinating document – a piece of journalism, as Coll describes it, about a failure of journalism. With its publication, we are officially retracting ‘A Rape on Campus.’ We are also committing ourselves to a series of recommendations about journalistic practices that are spelled out in the report. We would like to apologize to our readers and to all of those who were damaged by our story and the ensuing fallout, including members of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity and UVA administrators and students. Sexual assault is a serious problem on college campuses, and it is important that rape victims feel comfortable stepping forward. It saddens us to think that their willingness to do so might be diminished by our failings.
It’s pretty painful reading in general, frankly.
Before we move on, a note: The Charlottesville Police Department has said that, following investigation, “there is no substantive base to support the account alleged in the Rolling Stone article.” Their investigation has been suspended, not closed, pending any new evidence. This does not mean that Jackie flat-out lied. She may have misremembered things, she may have been mistaken about things. Or it’s entirely possible that she did lie. [ETA: To quote the Charlottesville chief of police, “That doesn’t mean that something terrible didn’t happen to Jackie… we’re just not able to gather sufficient facts to determine what it is.” Jackie made meritless and specific accusations that cause a lot of people a lot of suffering — that’s unavoidable. But painting her as an out-and-out malicious fabulist makes her a convenient scapegoat for the journalistic failures that never determined what actually did happen before broadcasting it to the world.] Without a definitive statement from her on the subject, it’s hard to call. But unsubstantiated does seem a safe way to go at this point, and regardless of the veracity of Jackie’s claim, that unsubstantiation is at the center of the entire disastrous Rolling Stone article’s disastrousness.
The rest of the things to note: No one has benefited from Rolling Stone‘s massive and far-reaching journalistic cockup. Moreover, no one has not been harmed by it. Not the University of Virginia, which, though far from perfect in its handling of campus sexual assault, had been making efforts to better support victims before the article was published — in fact, one of the other students writer Sabrina Erdely interviewed and decided not to feature in her story had successfully pursued a claim through UVA’s administration. Not Phi Kappa Psi or the students therein. Not the Greek system as a whole that now has an example to pull out when they want to claim that everyone’s out to get them. Not other universities that are more negligent with rape culture on their campus and can now say, “See? We try to help address sexual assault, and this is what happens to us.” Epidemic, schmepidemic.
And not victims of campus sexual assault. Definitely not those. Because now the entire subject of campus rape has a big asterisk on it. Now “but what about the Rolling Stone thing?” is available for casting doubt on rape allegations or on university mismanagement of rape allegations. The discussion of false rape allegations (estimated by several studies at between 2 and 8 percent of allegations, and we’ll look more closely at such statistics in a future post) now has one major, derailing example. “Yes, but look at the Rolling Stone thing.” Yes, the Rolling Stone thing. Now look at the hundreds of rapes that aren’t unsubstantiated. We can’t, and shouldn’t, deny the existence of unsubstantiated rape accusations — but every time one comes to the public eye in such a sensational way, rape victims are the ones who suffer.
In their review of Rolling Stone‘s cascade of bad decisions, the authors of the Columbia report say this:
Yet the editors and Erdely have concluded that their main fault was to be too accommodating of Jackie because she described herself as the survivor of a terrible sexual assault. Social scientists, psychologists and trauma specialists who support rape survivors have impressed upon journalists the need to respect the autonomy of victims, to avoid re-traumatizing them and to understand that rape survivors are as reliable in their testimony as other crime victims. These insights clearly influenced Erdely, [principal editor Sean] Woods and Dana. “Ultimately, we were too deferential to our rape victim; we honored too many of her requests in our reporting,” Woods said. “We should have been much tougher, and in not doing that, we maybe did her a disservice.”
Erdely added: “If this story was going to be about Jackie, I can’t think of many things that we would have been able to do differently. … Maybe the discussion should not have been so much about how to accommodate her but should have been about whether she would be in this story at all.” Erdely’s reporting led her to other, adjudicated cases of rape at the university that could have illustrated her narrative, although none was as shocking and dramatic as Jackie’s.
Their main fault was to be too accommodating of Jackie. Now we’re back to “misplaced” trust. The complete journalistic meltdown on the part of Erdely and the editorial staff above her was all out of an effort to protect Jackie’s feelings.
Yet Erdely wouldn’t have needed to re-traumatize Jackie in the process of talking to her colleagues at the aquatic center where she and her alleged rapist were lifeguards, or to the three friends Jackie said she talked to immediately after the rape (and whom Erdely depicted in a rather unflattering light in her article). (“In retrospect, I wish somebody had pushed me harder” to talk to them, she told Columbia in a convenient abrogation of responsibility.) She wouldn’t have needed Jackie’s cooperation to give sufficient details to Phi Kappa Psi for them to be able to do their own investigation into their part in the alleged assault. Jackie refused to identify her alleged rapist, but she didn’t make her participation in the article contingent on Erdely not contacting him — but Erdely was having trouble tracking him down, and she was two weeks away from her deadline, and so she decided to go forward with a story built around an unnamed man who, for all she knew, could have lived exclusively in Jackie’s mind.
Erdely’s reporting led her to other, adjudicated cases of rape at the university that could have illustrated her narrative, although none was as shocking and dramatic as Jackie’s. Now we’re talking.
At this point, it doesn’t matter whether Jackie was lying or was telling the truth or hallucinated the whole thing. Without having all of the story, Erdely had no story, but a no-story story was better than none at all when she was up against a deadline on such a career-makingly sensationalistic article. So she ran with it. And the rest is history.
Without knowing exactly what Jackie’s mindset was throughout the research and writing of A Rape on Campus, it’s hard to say whether or not Erdely took advantage of her to get the story. But it’s pretty clear that Erdely took advantage of every actual victim of campus sexual assault to get it. And not just Erdely — anyone in a decision-making position at Rolling Stone could have pushed to kill the story, or insisted that Erdely back away from Jackie’s story and concentrate on the numerous accounts of campus rape that were less “shocking and dramatic,” less “strong, powerful, provocative,” but more substantiated. They didn’t, and now every rape allegation that’s dismissed because “well, remember the Rolling Stone thing” is on them.
This doesn’t mean that every man (or woman) accused of rape is, by default, guilty. But it’s possible to take an alleged victim’s accusations seriously and not dismiss them out of hand as “buyer’s remorse” or a vengeful ex or a beg for attention. It’s not only possible but necessary to investigate fully — as the Charlottesville police did in determining that Jackie’s accusation was unsubstantiated, and as Erdely absolutely did not do in her reporting. Rape victims deserve to be taken seriously, not to be taken advantage of to vilify men, vilify rape victims or to publish a potentially career-making story before the next issue closes.
I think the most telling quote in Columbia’s report comes from Coco McPherson, the chief of Rolling Stone‘s fact-checking department, which was the source of several questions that were discarded higher up in the editorial process: “I one hundred percent do not think that the policies that we have in place failed. I think decisions were made around those because of the subject matter.”
I give Rolling Stone points for commissioning a third-party examination of their journalistic disaster, and for publishing the report despite the shameful portrait of their incompetence it delivers. Now I want to see what comes next. And I don’t mean the changes in their editorial process, because as McPherson noted above, the breakdown was not that it wasn’t edited correctly but that the editors didn’t care whether or not it was correct. I want to see what Rolling Stone will do to help negate the perception of a rash of false accusations that will arise/has arisen from this one unsubstantiated case. The rate of false accusations prior to November 19, 2014, was estimated at 2 to 8 percent, and today it’s 2 to 8 percent — that fact didn’t change with the knowledge that Jackie wasn’t on the level in her account of rape. The conversation has changed, though, and not for the better or the clearer.