When Sabrina Rubin Erdely set out to write “A Rape on Campus” — the sensational article that appeared in Rolling Stone’s November 2014 issue — she had an angle in mind. According to her notes from an initial interview with Emily Renda, a University of Virginia staff member working on sexual assault issues, Erdely wanted to show “what it’s like to be on campus now… where not only is rape so prevalent but also that there’s this pervasive culture of sexual harassment/rape culture.” Renda directed her to a student who would become nationally known simply as “Jackie,” a UVA junior in July 2014, and the student whose account would come to be featured in “A Rape on Campus.”
Jackie’s account was horrifying. She described, in graphic detail, being gang raped by seven men at a Phi Kappa Psi date function on September 28, 2012. According to Jackie, she was invited by “Drew,” her handsome aquatic center co-worker — and Phi Kappa Psi member — to the party. By the end of the night, Drew had led her to the dark room in which the rape occurred and had coached each of the men who violated her through the entire ordeal. Erdely’s article went on to describe the calloused reactions that greeted Jackie when she confided the assault first to her friends and then to campus officials. Her friends were horrified but seemingly more concerned with their social standing and how reporting a sexual assault might affect that. Campus officials were depicted as simultaneously sympathetic yet neglectful in handling the case nearly a year later.
Despite its prompt and overwhelming success, doubts regarding the story’s credibility emerged, and eventually Rolling Stone effectively retracted the story. The damage, however, was already done — damage that not only irrevocably tarnished Phi Kappa Psi’s collective reputation but also cast skepticism on other sexual assault survivors.
Exactly four months after their retraction, on April 5, 2015, Rolling Stone published an article written by Steve Coll, dean of the Columbia School of Journalism. The piece was intended as an external evaluation of Rolling Stone’s process pertaining to “A Rape on Campus,” and it detailed failures on the reporting, editing, editorial supervision, and fact-checking levels. After a detailed investigation into Rolling Stone’s process, Coll found that, while it didn’t appear that Rolling Stone’s staff intentionally published discredited information, lapses of judgment on almost all levels led to the debacle, and that the misrepresentation executed by the article’s publication could have been entirely avoided if basic reporting practices had been implemented.
Despite these findings, Rolling Stone maintains that their practices are not flawed, but rather, their current policies were not carried out in the production of “A Rape on Campus.” One has to wonder, however, how effective those policies really are if such an egregiously flawed story can manifest despite them. Additionally, despite a debacle that has caused irreversible damage to many, Rolling Stone has not seen fit to enforce internal consequences, which is, effectively, an apology without repentance.
Coll’s extensive report is full of incidents that could have exposed what seems to be either a fabricated or exaggerated account of sexual assault. When questioned about the publication’s lapse in diligent reporting, Sean Woods, who was one of Erdely’s editors, said this: “Ultimately, we were too deferential to our rape victim; we honored too many of her requests in our reporting.”
Indeed, honoring Jackie’s requests and insecurities regarding the story resulted in the portrayal of an unconfirmed story, given through only one person’s point of view, as something tested and credible. “A Rape on Campus” left readers with the perhaps assumed impression that the story, while not legally proven, was found by the magazine to be credible and confirmed; in reality, the account was neither.
Rolling Stone’s failure has resulted in disservices to several parties involved. First, Phi Kappa Psi’s name has been stained by an account that does not seem to have actually occurred in conjunction with their organization. The members of that fraternity have endured a great deal of backlash over an account that seems largely unfounded. In fact, they recently announced that they would be pursuing legal action against Rolling Stone for irresponsible reporting.
The other group of people affected by Rolling Stone’s reckless publication is undoubtedly survivors of sexual assault. Despite the fact that social scientists estimate only two to eight percent of sexual assault allegations are false, a sensational story like this one upholds the notion that rape culture is largely fictional and incidents of sexual assault are tragic but rare occurrences. Sexual assault victims, who already have a documented history of being met with disbelief and victim blaming, will likely be met with more skepticism on the heels of a story like this one.
To be clear, I am not advocating blind faith in accounts of sexual assault. I understand that, while rare, false allegations happen and, when they do, they ruin lives. I am, however, asserting that validation of sexual assault victims need not be mutually exclusive to pursuing the truth — a task that should vary vastly depending on one’s role. For example, advocates for victims of sexual assault have more freedom to validate and support victims than someone involved in the legal proceedings of a sexual assault case. Erdely’s task as a reporter fell somewhere between the two. She strived to support her subject and make her as comfortable as possible, but as someone delivering a sensational story via a prominent platform, she was also tasked with ensuring that, when held up to scrutiny, Jackie’s account remained credible. Not doing so was ultimately a greater disservice to Jackie than doing so would have been.
As Christians, we are informed of the incredible power of truth; we also know that sometimes truth must be doggedly pursued, not passively observed. Truth is sometimes offensive, and finding it can require sensitivity — especially in incidents like these — but ultimately we know that truth is not only worthwhile, but essential to bringing justice to survivors of sexual abuse.
Though many do, I don’t fault Erdely for setting out with an answer rather than a question. Advocacy journalism serves a unique and worthy purpose, and I trust that when Erdely was given the go ahead to begin her story, it was because she and her editors had a pre-awareness of a worthwhile issue. What I do fault Erdely for, however, is being convinced that the most effective story would be the most sensational one. Despite numerous dead-ends and what should have been red flags, Erdely and her editors seemed unwilling to move on from Jackie’s story, likely because it was sensational. I fault Erdely for assuming any story confirming her idea of rape culture was credible, ultimately tarnishing the reputations of many and casting other survivors of sexual assault in a needlessly critical light. Ultimately, though, what I fault Erdely and her colleagues for is a lack of deep respect for the truth. Basic journalistic practices necessitate hearing an account from more than one point of view for good reason, and citing respect for victims of sexual assault as a reason not to pursue truth seems misinformed at best, and at worst, a poorly strewn together justification for neglectful reporting.
“A Rape on Campus” has caused such uproar that I would be entirely unsurprised if journalists shied away from reporting on unadjudicated accounts of sexual assault in the future, which would be lamentable. Statistics show that the majority of sexual assault incidents still go unreported, and not giving credence or voice to these incidents would exclude a large portion of victims. However, I hope that “A Rape on Campus” serves as an example to future journalists who might set out to report similar stories that a respect for, and aggressive pursuit of, truth does not necessitate invalidating a victim’s account, but, ultimately, serves to protect him/her.
Journalists can respect victims of sexual assault, who are frequently met with disbelief, by maintaining a stance of trust while expressing the need for responsible reporting. Many victims of sexual assault might, for good reason, be uncomfortable with this; they should not be thought of as candidates for a story like the one Rolling Stone intended to publish. Erdely said it best: “Maybe the discussion should not have been so much about how to accommodate [Jackie] but should have been about whether she would be in this story at all.”