Rolling Stone's Massive Disservice to Rape Survivors

by - Thursday, December 11, 2014

We're going to go a bit off the normal topics that I blog about here and tackle something a little more serious because I have a lot of thoughts and feelings on this Rolling Stone/U-Va. cluster-F.

Some background before we dive into this:

I'm a journalist by trade, and though I don't work in a newsroom practicing the craft on a daily basis anymore, I still put a lot of weight in the basic tenants of journalism.

I have the utmost respect for the reporters who are out there every day chasing stories, tracking down leads, talking to uncooperative witnesses to keep the rest of us in the loop on what's going on in the world.

It's why I teach a college-level intro to reporting class to aspiring reporters (though I'm on a hiatus now because of grad school).

But, I also have some pretty major personal biases when it comes to this story, so I'm going to put them out there because I know they color my opinion on this whole thing. In no way do I claim to be unbiased about any of this.

When I was in high school and college, two people I am very close to were raped at Maryland.

I will never, ever forget the shock, horror and complete terror I felt when I first found out.

As a result, I didn't drink during my first three years of college. I can count the number of frat parties I went to on one hand, and heaven knows I never touched the Jungle Juice (Lord only knows what they threw in that stuff.) I was the kid who made sure all her friends got home safely from said parties, no matter how much they drank.

In the Greek system, I believe that was the role played by the "sober sister." In my world, it was just being a good friend.

As a result of all this, I will also 110% always, always believe the survivor.

So on that basic, human level, I understand why the Rolling Stone reporter and the many editors and legal people who reviewed the piece believed Jackie's story. It's very, very hard to imagine someone would make up something that traumatic.

But that Rolling Stone reporter and all those editors had a journalistic responsibility to fact check every single element of that story. They don't get to just accept a source at her word, especially not in a case like this.

I don't care that Jackie asked them to not talk to anyone about it. If as a news organization, you're going to run that story, you damn well better do your homework.

Because you know what happens now? Now people think Jackie's a liar and maybe the whole thing is made up, and maybe rape on college campuses isn't really that big of a deal, and this whole thing is getting overblown for no reason, because some overzealous reporter wanted to write a "gotcha" story.

And that, quite frankly, sucks. Because rape on college campuses is a problem.

It happens all too often, it's grossly underreported and when it is reported, it's often swept under the rug -- especially if the offender is a rich, privileged kid or (god-forbid for the university) a scholarship athlete.

I believe something happened to Jackie. I don't know what. I doubt it's exactly what Rolling Stone reported, but something happened to her. You don't go public with a story like that (even if your name is withheld) if it's completely false.

Somewhere in that story is a kernel of truth, and it was Rolling Stone's responsibility to ask more questions, to get at that exact story and to report on the facts that actually happened.

In journalism school, we teach fair and balanced reporting. That means giving all parties the opportunity to tell their side. As a reporter you don't get to pick and choose your sources so that it makes for a better story. You have to dig and dig until you talk to everyone. You never accept one person's story as the cold, hard facts -- even if that person is a rape survivor with a very powerful and convincing story.

So what Rolling Stone did was a majorly epic journalism fail. The gross irresponsibility in reporting truly blows my mind.

And while my heart breaks for Jackie that she experienced any sort of trauma, I can't help but be a little frustrated with the inconsistencies in her story.

Rape and sexual assault on college campuses are such a massive issues that desperately need to be addressed. But it's hard to hold this up as an example of why that's the case when it's so easy to punch holes in Jackie's story with even a little bit of digging and fact checking.

Jackie's story certainly called attention to the issue, but now it's too easy for people to brush it off as a bunch of lies, half-truths or fabrications. And that does a massive disservice to anyone who is brave enough to report this kind of crime in the future.

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  1. I've been reading your blog for a long time (lurker alert? lol), and while I've never commented before, I felt compelled to do so on this post because I 100% agree with everything you wrote. I'm a law student who is focusing on criminal law, so my perspective is obviously different from yours, but I feel validated knowing that someone with actual journalism experience shares my opinions about the lack of integrity shown by everyone at Rolling Stone.

    I could go on, of course, but as far as this particular topic (RSs' investigation and reporting) goes, I think you nailed it. Thank you for writing such a well thought out (non-knee-jerk reaction) post.

  2. I never read the Rolling Stone article because by the time I got around to reading it, the notion that it wasn't true was already out.

    I'm not a fan of the media these days - they sensationalize everything, which is what gets people interested, but it isn't always the truth. (Other examples include Ebola, Ferguson.) Rape is certainly an underreported and under prosecuted crime. It's hard to prove rape because it's basically he said/she said (insert whatever pronouns might be appropriate). I trained as a sexual assault forensic examiner within the past year, and I take call in the emergency department so if someone requests an exam after a rape, I do the rape kit that's given to the police. I thought it would be interesting to be involved in and a population that would benefit from my help - sometimes patients on my unit can be very difficult, but I thought working with sexual assault would be different.

    I've really been a bit torn apart by the experience. (Although nothing compared to what survivors go through, just to be clear.) I haven't done a ton of cases (luckily?), but many of them are delayed presentations - you can't collected evidence after four days, and honestly, most of the people I've worked with don't even want to go to the police. (Psych issues potentially in place, but that's an entirely different discussion.) I've also had cases where it seems like the person is making it up, and it hurts so much to say that. Changing stories, the patient's presentation, so many other factors - it's so difficult, but some people will just say something to get a bed to sleep in and some food. It's hard to doubt someone when you all want to do is help them.

    I'm rambling and not totally sure what my point is anymore! There are a few things that confuse me about rape on college campuses, specifically. Why colleges are handling these, I do not understand. If something happened to me, I never would have thought to go to my RA or campus security, I'd call the police or go to the ER. Also, why colleges don't refer survivors to the police is beyond me. I think it just perpetuates the culture that rape is not that big of a deal, not worthy of true law enforcement.

    Obviously Rolling Stone should be held to high standards in journalism, but the other issue with the internet is that anyone can put anything online. Reading comments on some of these articles just makes me sick.

  3. Sally7:38 AM

    I have so many thoughts on this... I believe that most women who say they are raped probably were. But, what I do not understand is why, even if it won't result in charges, do women not report this crime to the police and go to the hospital when they are on campus. Not to the school, not to the RA but to the actual community police who are the ones who would bring charges to the criminal who commits the act. Do not go to the school, they are not equipped for crimes, the police are and students are members of the communities that police "police".
    I am saying this from experience. When I was in college in the late 80's, rape occurred on campuses just as it does today, one of my friends told me she was raped and that the guy who was with her slipped her something in her drink. I pleaded with her to report it to the police, immediately the next day when she told me. She never did! I could not understand that mentality, I told her I would go with her and support her. The guy who did this to her was visiting a frat from another college and she invited him back to her dorm, which was co-ed.... so, it was not unusual to have guys over socially. Anyway, rape is a CRIME, the person who does it is a criminal and regardless of what happens eventually (charges being made against the person) or doesn't happen due to " he said" "she said" (not that rape is solely male vs female), a person who is raped must report and have an exam. Get it on the record with the police in the community where it occurs.
    So, this is why I have problems with the media being the ones who get the "story". If the person who is raped is so scared to go to police/tell story, why is the person not afraid to tell story to media where now the rapist knows she has blabbed? As inconvenient, scary, etc. as it is to go to police, it is the right thing to do when you are the victim of a crime and it also gives more credibility to the story. That is the thinking that doesn't make sense to me in these cases. The person won't go to the police, but they will go to the media, doesn't make any sense at all. My parents always told me if you are victim of crime, you go to the police.