Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s bombshell article “A Rape on Campus” in Rolling Stone last month on an alleged gang-rape at the University of Virginia contained all the elements of an explosive story: a helpless female gang-rape victim named ‘Jackie,’ apathetic friends more concerned with their social standing than with helping their battered companion , and institutional indifference on the part of the University of Virginia — a prestigious jewel of southern universities — that allowed seven wealthy fraternity members who committed rape to escape justice.
It was a compelling narrative that re-inflamed public dialogue about sexual assault in America’s college campuses, further reinforcing moves by the Obama administration to address the problem as the federal government continues to struggle with crafting Title IX sexual assault campus adjudication procedures for universities that can ultimately be fair to both accusers and the accused. Under withering criticism, U-Va. suspended all Greek activities until the beginning of spring semester in January after the story broke and quickly issued a notice that the university has zero-tolerance for sexual assault on its campus.
But there was one drawback to the 9,000 word article by Erdely: Under the glare of media and public scrutiny, not much of it proved to be true.
Richard Bradley, a former editor at the political magazine George who was famously duped by writer and serial fabricator Stephen Glass, was the first to raise concerns with the story on Nov. 24 — just five days after the article was published — writing that “one must be most critical, in the best sense of that word, about what one is already inclined to believe.” He cited the article’s failure to identify the three friends who went to Jackie’s aid that night and Erdely’s journalistic neglect in not contacting the accused, confirmed by the Washington Post on Dec. 1.
The story began to unravel when the Washington Post began to poke gaping holes in Erdely’s story, beginning with Jackie’s account of that night and the name of her alleged attacker. Although Jackie had identified her attacker as a Psi Kappa Phi fraternity member, the Post contacted the fraternity member accused of rape in the story only to find that he was not even a member of the Psi Kappa Phi fraternity. The Post also reported that after sitting through interviews with Erdely, Jackie found herself “overwhelmed,” and asked to be taken out of the article, to which Erdely refused and “Jackie was told that the article would go forward regardless.”
In what civilized world does a journalist move forward with a story after a source, on top of that a victim of alleged gang-rape, wants to be removed from the article? And that was just the beginning of Rolling Stone’s many missteps.
In the face of solid reporting by the Washington Post which exposed mistakes in Rolling Stone’s journalism, the magazine then issued a statement saying although there were some “discrepancies” with the story, it added that its trust in Jackie was “misplaced.” After accusations of “victim-blaming,” the renowned pop-culture magazine quietly modified its apology, instead saying that “the mistakes are on us, and not Jackie.”
In subsequent articles published by the Washington Post, there were even more startling revelations. The three friends described in the original article as being “more concerned with the social price of reporting Jackie’s rape” had actually urged her to go to police. They added that they were never contacted by Erdely or Rolling Stone.
These huge journalistic lapses by Rolling Stone have rightly worried campus sexual assault activists. Many now fear that the collapsing story by the magazine will set their movement back several years after much progress was made on the issue in 2014. After unprecedented student activism, the scourge of rape on campus was finally being addressed by universities and the federal government after years of neglect, benefitting from the creation of new laws and government moves to hold universities to account in their handling of sexual assault, including Florida State University, which finds itself the target of an ongoing federal investigation for mishandling the sexual assault allegations against its star quarterback, Jameis Winston.
To say that the mistakes by Rolling Stone were an example of shoddy journalism is a drastic understatement. The magazine committed the deadliest form of journalistic malpractice by allowing the story to be published in the first place. Erdely failed to corroborate the facts provided by a source, failed to contact the accused (a key tenet of journalism is that it can’t afford to be one-sided) and didn’t even interview key witnesses that could shed light on what truly happened the night of Jackie’s alleged gang-rape. The disastrous handling of the story will also further undermine public confidence in journalists, as they are supposed to be the guardians of truth and objectivity in a world filled with unwavering pre-existing biases and corrupted by rampant lies.
The unraveling story will likely poison the atmosphere for young college-aged victims of sexual assault, making them more wary of coming forward to police and university administrators to file a report of rape, already one of the most underreported crimes.
What happened to Jackie that night remains murky and is the subject of much debate, even as the Post continues to slowly put the pieces together through its stellar reporting to create a clearer picture of key events. However, there is one thing to keep in mind: although false accusations of rape are possible, reports of rape are rarely false.
But harking back to the close of the 19th century, when confronted with horrific social conditions in his native Russia, celebrated author Leo Tolstoy raised a question in one of his lesser known works that must be asked again.
“What Is To Be Done?”
Typically, news organizations assign reporters and editors not stained by association with a faulty story to re-report it in an effort to uncover what went wrong. The New York Times assigned several reporters when confronted by rampant false reporting by staff writer Jayson Blair in 2003. And last year, CBS News did the same when a story on “60 Minutes” regarding the 2012 consulate attack in Benghazi fell apart after an “eyewitness” account turned out to be blatantly false. If Rolling Stone has any shred of journalistic integrity, it’s going to have to commit to a thorough internal review of the story and publicly reveal what went terribly wrong with Erdely’s reporting. But it remains unclear what the renowned pop-culture magazine will do next, with Erdely looking into possibly re-reporting the bungled story once again.
Blame Rolling Stone, the writer Sabrina Rubin Erdely, and her editors for their sweeping failure to verify key facts of the U-Va. story, but don’t blame the alleged victim until more of the facts are known in the story. Certainly, if Jackie’s account turns out to be thoroughly false, she should be punished to the fullest extent of the law. Accusing someone of a crime they did not commit is a crime in itself, punishable by fines or at worst, jail time. As a direct result of the explosive article, the Psi Kappa Phi fraternity was vandalized and fraternity members heavily victimized, along with nearly destroying U-Va.’s once prestigious reputation.
When reporting on campus sexual assault, journalists often straddle a fine line between being too accommodating with victims and upholding their professional responsibilities to make sure that all of a story rings true. The ensuing struggle often results in published stories that are too reductive about campus sexual assault, when sometimes, the situation is made murky by conflicting accounts and muddled circumstances. There’s a true danger when the media latches on to a narrative that plays into pre-existing biases, obstructing the ability for the truth to reveal itself. One only has to revisit the 2006 Duke lacrosse scandal, where an accusation of rape against three Duke lacrosse players made national headlines, but ultimately turned out to be false. Some of the players continue to struggle with their past.
“It was too delicious a story,” said Daniel Okrent, a former New York Times public editor in the American Journalism Review, who was critical of the Times’ own coverage of the scandal and that of many other news organizations. “It conformed too well to too many preconceived notions of too many in the press: white over black, rich over poor, athletes over non-athletes, men over women, educated over non-educated. Wow. That’s a package of sins that really fit the preconceptions of a lot of us.”
It was Erdely’s and the Rolling Stone’s professional responsibility to scrutinize Jackie’s account with thorough reporting, ensuring its veracity and including more than just one side of the story. Their failure to do so was a disgrace to journalism, an injustice to sexual assault victims, and a disservice to victim advocates everywhere that risks setting back the dialogue on the problem of rape on America’s college campuses for years to come.
by JOSEPH ZEBALLOS / staff writer