On Nov. 19, 2014, a scandal erupted when Rolling Stone published the article, “A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA” written by Sabrina Erdely.
The article addressed one particularly tragic rape case that allegedly took place at the University of Virginia.
It was later discovered that the whole story was a lie. On Dec. 4, the article was officially retracted, but the damage had already been done.
The entire story was based on the testimonial of one victim, who the reporter rarely challenged.
After the story was retracted, Rolling Stone invited the Columbia Journalism Review to investigate everything that went wrong in the course of writing the article. Their report was published on the Rolling Stone webpage on April 5.
Columbia’s report cited quite a lot of failings on the part of not only the writer but also the editor and fact checkers. The main problem throughout the report seemed to be the complete trust that they put in their one and only source.
Here at TU, during freshman orientation, they taught us to always listen when someone claims they have been abused, and to be careful not to blame the victim or act like you don’t believe them.
That sounds like the easy and polite thing to do, but sadly you can’t trust everyone. The young woman at the focal point of the story, only ever referred to as Jackie, apparently fabricated the whole event.
How is anyone supposed to draw that line? You either feel like a douchebag for blaming the victim, or you look like a gullible idiot if you find out that it’s a lie.
Yet, in a professional sense, putting aside how she felt about Jackie’s supposed plight, the reporter should have investigated Jackie’s claims.
According to Columbia’s report, “Journalistic practice—and basic fairness—require that if a reporter intends to publish derogatory information about anyone, he or she should seek that person’s side of the story.”
“From the journalistic perspective it is important to treat survivors with dignity but also tell stories with accuracy so that the public can understand all the issues involved in how campuses address sexual assault and harassment.” Said Dr. Newman and Dr. Davis from TU’s Psychology department. “This article and the review illustrate why it is so important for accurate news about sexual assault to be covered ethically.”
In the process of mishandling her story, Erdely managed to blatantly insult the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity and the University of Virginia.
The fraternity received a lot of backlash due to the event. After the retraction was announced, they decided to sue Rolling Stone for defamation. With that in mind, they should be able to recover their dignity.
However, in the case of UVA, this article came at a time when women were reporting cases of sexual abuse at universities all over the U.S., including here at TU.
“Across the country, college administrators had to adjust to stricter federal oversight as well as to a new generation of student activists, including women who declared openly that they had been raped at school and had not received justice,” the report reads.
These colleges aren’t in any way redeemed by Jackie’s lie. We can’t assume that because one person lied, everyone else also lied. For UVA, and many other universities, this event only complicates how they treat those people who come forward as victims.
The incident that Rolling Stone caused is also sadly ironic. Their intent was to show the nation that rape victims need help, and instead they have left the impression that rape victims can’t be trusted.
It is disheartening to know that the progress made toward getting victims to speak out against their rapists has been undermined by one person’s lies.
“Hopefully people will remember that the Rolling Stone controversy is an outlier,” said Newman and Davis. “The Rolling Stone’s story does not change the important work that has been conducted on this issue to guide journalists’ coverage of interpersonal violence,” they continued.
Rolling Stone published an official apology alongside Columbia’s report.
The letter from Managing Editor Will Dana said, “We would like to apologize to our readers and to all of those who were damaged by our story and the ensuing fallout, including members of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity and UVA administrators and students.”
“Sexual assault is a serious problem on college campuses, and it is important that rape victims feel comfortable stepping forward. It saddens us to think that their willingness to do so might be diminished by our failings,” added Dana.
A simple apology doesn’t quite make up for the damage caused to all the parties involved. A lot of people and organizations are affected by sexual assault and it will most likely continue to be a problem for many.