The Dallas Morning News.
The first rule of journalism is to get as many sides of a story as possible. What responsible journalists don’t do is make deals with an accuser to avoid listening to the accused. It’s bad form in routine reporting, and horrific when the story involves accusations that a college fraternity gang-raped a female student.
Rolling Stone’s failure to ferret out a more complete story has claimed two victims: The magazine’s journalistic integrity, and, of greater significance, victims of sexual assaults on campus, who could find it more difficult to be taken seriously.
The Rolling Stone story, titled “A Rape on Campus,” by Sabrina Rubin Erdely and published last month, drew national attention because it was so shocking. In great detail, the story alleged a massive cover-up of sexual assault at the University of Virginia in 2012, as told through a narrative of “Jackie,” a freshman, who allegedly was gang-raped at a fraternity house.
We don’t know what happened to “Jackie” that evening, but sexual assault is a well-documented problem on college campuses. Put aside the sensationalism of the Rolling Stone story. There are many independent studies that conclude sexual assault on campus is not being treated as seriously as it should be. A 2007 report by the National Institute of Justice found that 13.7 percent of undergraduate women had been victims of sexual assault.
Other studies say universities seldom expel students and often block outside police investigations into campus sexual assault complaints. The University of Virginia, which was already under federal investigation for improper handling of previous sexual violence complaints, seemed to fit this narrative.
However, the truth matters. According to subsequent reporting, “Jackie” asked Erdely to take her out of the article, the first red flag. We’ve also learned that one of the suspects, a student named “Drew,” didn’t work at the aquatic center as she said, and that the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity had no parties on the weekend “Jackie” said she was attacked. Other discrepancies include her claims that she was injured by being smashed into a glass coffee table and that friends talked her out of going to the hospital. At least one of those friends denies that account.
Sexual assault victims and journalism are hurt when editors fail to ask tough questions, ignore inconsistencies and fall in love with a story. And Rolling Stone did itself no favors with its initial apology. At first, an editor’s note blamed the accuser for betraying the publication’s trust. Only after public outcry did editors revise the note to take a greater measure of responsibility.
Something traumatic probably happened to “Jackie” that night. But it’s unclear what, when and how. Also unclear is what the university knew and when it knew it.
Sadly, the story that was supposed to make it hard to ignore the problem of sexual assault on campuses risks accomplishing precisely the opposite, giving those who believe women make these things up, or exaggerate circumstances, even greater reason to doubt. It shouldn’t be that way. We trust reasonable people will chalk this incident up to what it is: one failure by one magazine.