How the journalistic debacle of the year is liable to harm rape victims everywhere
by Marie Baleo
“Shut up,” she heard a man’s voice say as a body barreled into her, tripping her backward and sending them both crashing through a low glass table. There was a heavy person on top of her, spreading open her thighs, and another person kneeling on her hair, hands pinning down her arms, sharp shards digging into her back, and excited male voices rising all around her. When yet another hand clamped over her mouth, Jackie bit it, and the hand became a fist that punched her in the face. The men surrounding her began to laugh. (…) “Grab its motherfucking leg,” she heard a voice say. And that’s when Jackie knew she was going to be raped.
Thus went Rolling Stone’s “A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA”, an article published on 19 November 2014 and viewed over 2.7 million times, before its retraction in April 2015. The article, written by contributing editor Sabrina Rubin Erdely, told the story of Jackie, a University of Virginia student allegedly gang-raped in a frat house in September 2012. Erdely had been introduced to Jackie by Emily Renda, a leader in the University’s sexual assault group.
“(Jackie) was absolutely bursting to tell this story”, Erdely recounts. “I could not believe how it poured out of her in one long narrative. She spoke so fast, I hardly had a chance to ask her a question. She was dying to share it.” Jackie told Erdely that she had been asked out by a fellow lifeguard at the university pool, a junior referred to in the article by the pseudonym “Drew”. A member of Phi Kappa Psi, Drew invited Jackie to a party at the fraternity house. Once there, Jackie followed Drew upstairs and into a dark room; over the next hours, seven young men took turns raping Jackie while Drew stood by and watched. Jackie shared her story in elaborate detail, and Erdely “remembered being “a bit incredulous” about the vividness of some of the details Jackie offered, such as the broken glass from the smashed table.”
Running out barefoot, her dress bloodied, Jackie called three of her friends (two boys and a girl, referred to by the pseudonyms Andy, Randall, and Cindy), who met up with her outside of the fraternity house. One of them suggested taking Jackie to the hospital, but the others refused and an argument ensued, with Cindy concluding that “(Jackie) is going to be the girl who cried rape, and we’ll never be allowed into any frat party again”.
The story, seen as the apex of the US’ campus rape problem, drew considerable attention. However, a mere five days after publication, several news outlets began to question Erdely’s journalistic methods and the veracity of Jackie’s story. Reason called the story a “gigantic hoax”: “But (Erdely) should be able to confirm that she knows who the attackers are, shouldn’t she? Again, we don’t have to know who they are, but we should know that she knows (…) One issue now being raised by skeptics is the nature of (Jackie’s) injuries, which sound as if they would have required immediate medical attention. (According to the story, everybody involved was basically rolling around in broken glass for hours.) If the frat brothers were absolute sociopaths to do this to Jackie, her friends were almost cartoonishly evil—casually dismissing her battered and bloodied state and urging her not to go to the hospital.”
It also became apparent that Erdely had not contacted Jackie’s alleged assailants, either because she had been unable to reach them, or because she had not attempted to. In spite of growing controversy, Erdely continued to refuse to reveal whether she knew the identity of Jackie’s rapists and whether she had attempted to contact “Drew”. “Andy”, “Randall”, and “Cindy” were never interviewed by Erdely either, even though “Jackie never requested – then or later – that Rolling Stone refrain from contacting (them) independently.”
On December 1, editor Sean Woods admitted Rolling Stone had not talked to the alleged attackers, but said he was “satisfied that these guys exist and are real”. The magazine issued the following statement: “Through our extensive reporting and fact-checking, we found Jackie to be entirely credible and courageous and we are proud to have given her disturbing story the attention it deserves”.
However, two weeks after publication, Phi Kappa Psi revealed it had not hosted any party or event on the weekend of 28 September 2012. Additionally, no Phi Kappa Psi brother was employed at the University’s aquatic center. Jackie’s friends themselves began to voice doubts. Jackie had told them the name of one of her assailants, but the students discovered this person belonged to a different fraternity. They also denied that Jackie had appeared to be physically hurt when they saw her on the night of the incident, and disputed the conversation on the consequences of calling the police ever took place.
In a statement dated 5 December 2014, Rolling Stone managing editor Will Dana wrote:
“In the face of new information, there now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie’s account, and we have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced”. But Jackie’s former suitemate Emily Clark came to her rescue, claiming that the student had seemed depressed in the fall of 2012, and that “something terrible happened to Jackie at the hands of several men who have yet to receive any repercussions”.
On 14 December 2014, after revealing their identities (Alex Stock, Kathryn Hendley, and Ryan Duffin), the friends revealed “Drew”’s real name according to Jackie: Haven Monahan. But no Haven Monahan could be found on campus, or in the entire area. When asked for Monahan’s phone number, Jackie gave her friends three different numbers “registered to internet services that allow people to text without a phone number or redirect calls to different numbers”. A photo sent to one of the students by a such phone number turned out to be a picture of one of Jackie’s high school classmates, whose name is not Haven.
In January 2015, Charlottesville police cleared the fraternity, declaring no evidence had been found to corroborate Jackie’s story, following which the fraternity was reinstated. Additionally, the police report revealed that Jackie’s description of the assault to Dean Nicole Eramo, the associate dean of students, differed significantly from the description made to Erdely. Police Chief Timothy J. Longo declared: “That doesn’t mean something terrible didn’t happen to Jackie … we’re just not able to gather sufficient facts to determine what that is.” The police investigation was eventually suspended.
In April 2015, Rolling Stone officially retracted its article and issued an apology. However, publisher Jann Wenner declared no one would be fired over the case.
Sloppy journalism and the temptations of the blockbuster story
On 22 December 2014, Rolling Stone called on the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism to investigate and present its findings on what exactly allowed the magazine to run a false story so confidently. The unforgiving report highlighted a number of spectacular failings in the journalistic process, a “journalistic failure that was avoidable (and) encompassed reporting, editing, editorial supervision and fact-checking.”
It seemed Erdely, who had been searching for a “single, emblematic rape case”, had fallen for the siren song: the prospect of the “perfect” campus rape case, one spectacular enough to draw attention to the crucial issue of the prevalence of sexual assault on US campuses. Perhaps other stories might have been available, readily verifiable and truthful, but less sensational and less graphic than Jackie’s tale. Perhaps the drive to create the perfect story, what the New Yorker refers to as the “tyranny of narrative”, enticed Erdely into overlooking essential verification.
But Erdely was not the only party at fault. Her editors decided to go through, even though Drew’s real name and existence had not been verified. “In retrospect, I wish somebody had pushed me harder” to contact Jackie’s friends, Erdely said. However, editor Woods said he repeatedly asked Erdely to reach out to the three friends, but that she said this was impossible; Woods eventually “felt (Rolling Stone) had enough”.
Though Jackie would not provide Rolling Stone with Drew’s real identity herself, she never demanded that the magazine refrain from attempting to identify Drew of its own motion. It is Erdely, who, shortly before publication, suggested using a pseudonym so that Rolling Stone could avoid contacting Drew. The same solution was used for Jackie’s three friends. A fact checker at Rolling Stone claimed the magazine had come to the conclusion “that they were comfortable” with not telling their readership that, even though he was heavily quoted in the article, Ryan had never been contacted, and that the quotes attributed to him were really Jackie’s.
The report highlighted the fact that the magazine’s error had little to do with trying to protect Jackie: “The editors made judgments about attribution, fact-checking and verification that greatly increased their risks of error but had little or nothing to do with protecting Jackie’s position.” It also established that, contrary to what Rolling Stone had hinted at several times, Jackie had not asked to be left out of the article, and that the magazine and Jackie had never entered into an agreement not to speak with “Drew”.
The Columbia report concluded that “the failure of “A Rape on Campus” was not due to a lack of resources. The problem was methodology, compounded by an environment where several journalists with decades of collective experience failed to surface and debate problems about their reporting or to heed the questions they did receive from a fact-checking colleague”, and noted that “If Jackie was attacked and, if so, by whom, cannot be established definitively from the evidence available.“
This is important: it is not known whether Jackie was in fact raped or not, but the public’s perception following the story is that of a cunning, hysterical liar, an attention-seeking fabulist. This, and not the jaw-dropping failure of the magazine, or the very real problem of campus sexual assault, is what readers everywhere will come away with. This is a case that people will remember, like they usually remember the names of liars and fabulists – from NBC’s Brian Williams to fake cancer survivor Belle Gibson. Meanwhile, everyone appears to have forgotten the all too real and tragic fate of Canadian teenager Rehtaeh Parsons, who committed suicide in 2013 at the age of 17, a year after she was gang raped at a party, and after months of bullying via social media.
The damaging effect of Rolling Stone’s failure and a few important reminders
Rolling Stone’s “Rape on Campus” did a great disservice to sexual assault victims everywhere, and particularly to the overwhelming majority of rape victims who are unsure whether they want to share their story or stay silent forever. Regrettable incidents such as Rolling Stone’s shoddy reporting can deter victims from telling their story for fear of being ignored or doubted.
A similar message is sent by Rolling Stone’s half-hearted apology, and refusal to acknowledge its need to reform its methods: “Rolling Stone’s senior editors are unanimous in the belief that the story’s failure does not require them to change their editorial systems.” The magazine’s fact-checking chief, Coco McPherson, even stated: “I one hundred percent do not think that the policies that we have in place failed. I think decisions were made around those because of the subject matter.”
Rolling Stone readily shifted the blame to Jackie in so many words: “Yet the editors and Erdely have concluded that their main fault was to be too accommodating of Jackie because she described herself as the survivor of a terrible sexual assault. (…) “Ultimately, we were too deferential to our rape victim; we honored too many of her requests in our reporting,” Woods said. “We should have been much tougher, and in not doing that, we maybe did her a disservice.””, states the Columbia report. Similarly, with its early statement of December, in which it claimed that its trust in Jackie had been misplaced, the magazine clearly blamed the young woman. This blame game is symptomatic of rape culture, defined as “the way in which society blames victims of sexual assault and normalizes male sexual violence” (and by Rush Limbaugh as a concoction of the Left…)
Additionally, in focusing on a spectacular story (a gang rape on a bed of broken glass, a victim in a bloodied dress, unnoticed by a houseful of party-goers, a young woman referred to as “it” by her attackers), the magazine implicitly sent the message that only the most horrific, graphic of sexual assault qualifies as, well, sexual assault. This perpetuates an implicit hierarchy between “real” sexual assault and sexual assault which many, victims included, are led to view as “not that bad”. In other words, the article creates a certain “threshold of horror” beyond which a rape may be taken seriously and becomes important enough to be talked about.
As Emily Renda said, less extreme cases are “not real enough to stand for rape culture. And that is part of the problem.” Why must we wait for situations as gruesome as Jackie’s purported rape to react about campus rape? In 2006, a Justice Department survey found that almost 25% of college women have experienced rape or attempted rape. But we are so desensitized to human pain and suffering, so devoid of empathy, that well-meaning journalists like Erdely are left to scour the United States for the “best”, most sensational rape story, as if this were entertainment rather than a horrendous personal tragedy. As the Globe & Mail so eloquently put it, a “less buzzy narrative probably didn’t seem like it would be best for Ms. Erdely, who for a brief period soared on the high of her career.”
We live in a world that still does not understand that all unwanted sexual contact is sexual assault, a society that thinks kissing someone against their will (don’t act like you didn’t just roll your eyes and think “oh please!”) is not that big of a problem, a world that fundamentally overlooks or misunderstands the concept of consent, a society that takes sexual violence for granted. In Transforming a Rape Culture, Emily Buchwald writes: “In a rape culture both men and women assume that sexual violence is a fact of life, inevitable”. It is not.
Finally, Rolling Stone’s story perpetuates the idea that many women invent sexual assault experiences, and will probably contribute to the dismal rate of reporting of rape cases. When people think of campus rapes in the US, they will now think of Jackie, the girl who “cried rape”, a stigma that will affect all victims of sexual assault. Alex Pinkleton, a friend of Jackie’s and a rape victim herself, told the Washington Post: “One of my biggest fears with these inconsistencies emerging is that people will be unwilling to believe survivors in the future (…) However, we need to remember that the majority of survivors who are coming forward are telling the truth.” In fact, a study conducted by psychologists at University of Massachusetts and Northeastern University showed that the prevalence of false allegations of sexual assault is somewhere between 2% and 10%. This leaves 90% to 98% of actual rape survivors, somehow still not enough for rape to be taken seriously, or for us to take active steps towards acknowledging and ridding ourselves of rape culture.
 Inside Higher Ed quotes Laura Dunn, of SurvJustice, as saying that “the fact that some people still balk at the idea of unwanted kissing being considered sexual assault is a result of the criminal justice system frequently focusing on only the worst kinds of sexual violence. It’s caused a particular image of sexual assault to form in people’s heads, she said, and it’s an image that denies a much broader expanse of offenses”.
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