How Rolling Stone Failed Rape Survivors

[Content note: sexual assault]

My new Daily Dot piece discusses the Rolling Stone mess.

Last month’s groundbreaking Rolling Stone piece about sexual assault at the University of Virginia recently came under scrutiny from reporters at Slate and the Washington Post, leading Rolling Stone to retract the piece on Friday.

Unfortunately, many are taking this to mean that “Jackie,” the college student who described her brutal gang rape in the original piece, was lying about her ordeal. Based on everything I have read about this story, however, I find that exceedingly unlikely.

One major criticism of the original Rolling Stone piece has centered on the fact that the reporter, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, did not reach out to the students Jackie accused of rape or to the fraternity where she claimed the assault happened. In the retraction piece, the editors wrote, “Because of the sensitive nature of Jackie’s story, we decided to honor her request not to contact the man who she claimed orchestrated the attack on her nor any of the men who she claimed participated in the attack for fear of retaliation against her.”

I understand this decision, and I understand how difficult it must’ve been for Erdely to try to keep Jackie comfortable enough to speak publicly about such a traumatic experience. But this goes against journalistic ethics and leaves the journalist, the publication, the readers, and the subject of the piece—Jackie—vulnerable. Since Jackie was already going on the record with her accusation, refusing to try to interview the men she accused would not have helped prevent retribution against her. Unfortunately, that is a risk any time a rape survivor goes public—in fact, any time anyone publicly accuses anybody of anything.

Reporting the story ethically and rigorously doesn’t have to mean disbelieving Jackie or treating her insensitively. There’s a difference between a reporter who says, “I’m going to interview whoever I want regardless of what you want” and a reporter who says, “I understand your concerns, but in order for this story to be as powerful as we want it to be, I need to reach out to the people you’re accusing.” If Jackie refused to speak given these terms, perhaps this was not the right time to try to write this piece. As Audrey White writes at Autostraddle:

Erdely’s job as a reporter required she create a bulletproof story to protect Jackie, avoid libel against the alleged assailants, and achieve her ostensible goal of revealing a culture at UVA and in Greek life that promotes and protects sexual assault. … If respecting Jackie’s wishes meant the reporter couldn’t contact anyone else related to the assault, even to confirm basic details like a person’s membership in the frat or the date of an event, she should have found a different source or approached the narrative from a different angle. As it stands, she put the integrity of her story and of Jackie’s search for resolution at risk.

Indeed, it’s now unclear how willing Jackie was to be a part of this story at all. The Washington Post reports: “Overwhelmed by sitting through interviews with the writer, Jackie said she asked Erdely to be taken out of the article. She said Erdely refused, and Jackie was told that the article would go forward regardless.”

While Jackie doesn’t specify exactly how or why she was overwhelmed by this process, the fact that there appear to be “inconsistencies” in her recollection of her gang rape gives a possible clue.

Read the rest here.

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How Rolling Stone Failed Rape Survivors
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4 thoughts on “How Rolling Stone Failed Rape Survivors

  1. 1

    Great piece, Miri.
    Thanks for writing it, and once again “ruining” all our fun so very professionally!*

    *my tiny little (femto-? atto-?) joke…I’ve always liked your “Professional Fun-Ruiner” tag!

  2. 3

    A really big problem that props up rape culture is the willful ignorance of what established science tells us about memory. But people should really know better without needing to see the studies since memory is pretty unreliable. People get details wrong. A person reports they went to Walgreens when it was really CVS. Or they thought they went Monday when they really went Tuesday. There’s no reason to assume memory would be more accurate from a traumatic event.

    People questioning rape victims should know that. I sometimes feel that cops question rape victims in a way that’s intentionally gas-lighting and sets people up for confusion. A friend of mine related how a cop wouldn’t let her just make a statement, but would constantly interrupt with questions that seemed more designed to get her flustered or frustrated so she would stop and that didn’t even seem relevant.

    The thing about a piece like this is, any journalist should know that anyone who talks publicly about being raped is going to face retaliation. They should have really thought about that with this one.

  3. 4

    I agree with pretty much all of this. It’s a shame, too, because I’ve read and appreciated Erdely’s stuff in the past – she has done good work. In this case, however, it appears as though she made several truly colossal mistakes. Yes, Rolling Stone’s ill-conceived disclaimer was awful, but none of this would have happened if Erdely had done her fucking job.

    “Charles C. Johnson” is a piece of shit.

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