“A Rape on Campus” errors go beyond journalistic integrity

By now, I’m sure most of you have heard about the Rolling Stone article, “A Rape on Campus”, the story chronicling a young woman’s assault, as well as the emotional aftermath and the problems she faced in reporting her assault and in seeking support. However, it’s recently come to light that the magazine did a less-than-stellar job fact-checking the article and the situation was very misrepresented. I couldn’t track down the original story, but the Wikipedia page on the topic covers most of the important details if you’re unfamiliar.

Rolling Stone wrote an entire article outlining the mistakes they made in the reporting process, and while I think that’s an important step for journalistic integrity, I don’t think they’ve done enough to address how this situation could negatively impact the reporting process for future survivors. My greatest concern is that this furthers the idea that women falsely report rape, making it even harder to overcome that stigma society attaches to coming forward about sexual assault.

It’s horrifying how hard it is for someone to report sexual assault. If you’re a man, you’re ridiculed for it because what kind of man would let that happen to him? If you’re a woman, you’re accused of making it up for attention, because you were angry with the other person, or because you wanted to have sex with someone but then changed your mind after the fact. It’s disgusting how many defenses I’ve heard rape apologists use. Realistically, at most, only 2-8% of rape allegations are false, according to the article, “A Rape on Campus: What Went Wrong”. I spoke with Katie Eichele, the director of the Aurora Center, while working on a class project and she explained to me exactly what those who report sexual assault must go through, physically, mentally, and emotionally; in order to have any chance of making their case against an attacker. I know that if I ever to go through the examination process Katie explained to me, I would feel violated and traumatized. As she pointed out, why in the world would anyone cry rape, only to be subjected to this kind of ordeal?

Additionally, our bodies’ biological reaction to trauma can have a major impact on our memories and how someone who experienced sexual assault would recall the incident. This is a newer field of study, one that I’ve written about extensively in the past. Once again, if the public is reading all of this information about the misinformation the article is spreading, no one is going to say, there’s a chance that Jackie, the survivor in the Rolling Stone article, may not remember all the details correctly because the experience was probably traumatizing. Instead, they’re going to assume she made everything up. Once again, the conversation we’re having around this article is hurting society’s ability to look at sexual assaults in a different way and make some positive change.

After thoroughly reading through Rolling Stone’s side of the story, as well as Columbia’s evaluation of the reporting process, I found an article titled, “I Was Sexually Assaulted at UVA. I don’t accept the Reporter’s Apology”. It helped me see even more problems with the reporting process may cause for those who have been sexually assaulted, as a survivor penned the article. Kirsten Schofield is a survivor from UVA who can vouch for how poorly the school handles sexual assault cases, as she faced this situation. She says that authorities brushed off her story because of who her assailants were. Even after discovering a good chunk of the Rolling Stone piece was false, Schofield says her eyes are still open to the school’s major faults.

Schofield, who is now an advocate for survivors, says that one of the beset things you can do for a survivor while they are recounting their story is to listen in a nonjudgmental way and allow them to work through what they can remember. This is what helped her work through her own attack, as well as what she does for survivors who come to her. That’s exactly what Erdely did for Jackie while reporting, which would have been great if she was an advocate.

As a journalist, Erdely’s responsibility is not the same as that of an advocate. She needed to look at all the facts very closely and make sure every single one could be verified, even if it makes the subject unhappy, even if it’s a challenge. If you find enough inconsistencies, the publication needs to be willing to drop the story because we live in a world where women are seen as liars and many people think “assault only happens in dark alley when you’re walking alone.” She calls Erdely’s actions a disservice to those who have been assaulted.

Additionally, it’s problematic that Rolling Stone’s original apology, if you can call it that, blamed Jackie solely for their shoddy reporting. This is something that Jann Wenner, the magazine’s publisher, is still doing. It supports the idea that women make up rape stories to get attention or get what they want, when we know that simply isn’t true.

When I first read the Rolling Stone article, I was so compelled by Jackie’s story, something that I originally found as part of my research for a class project. I was so happy to see such a major, influential publication covering rape on campus and making such a large audience aware of the situation we’re up against. However, I was so disheartened to see that there were so many journalistic problems with this story, ones that immediately hurt its credibility. While there’s no way to know for sure what happened to Jackie, I don’t doubt that she experienced some kind of assault on the night in question. We now have to deal with the repercussions of this article, ones that I find to be hindering progress when it comes to sexual assault reporting. It isn’t something I would expect from such a large publication, but I really wish that Rolling Stone would have taken this opportunity to inform the public that this is not the norm when it comes to reporting sexual assault and made it less about their own reputation.

What are some others’ thoughts on the Rape on Campus article and its aftermath?