In Nov. 2014, Rolling Stone released a story aptly titled “A Rape on Campus,” which focused on the alleged gang rape of a University of Virginia student named Jackie at a campus fraternity house. It was the kind of shocking, horrifying narrative that inspired fear and disgust in readers, as well as overwhelming sympathy for the victim and self-righteous fury at the alleged perpetrators and the university for letting something like this happen. However, a thorough investigation revealed that much of this story was false.
“The magazine set aside or rationalized as unnecessary essential practices of reporting that, if pursued, would likely have led the magazine’s editors to reconsider publishing Jackie’s narrative so prominently, if at all,” said Rolling Stone in a statement released last week. “The published story glossed over the gaps in the magazine’s reporting by using pseudonyms and by failing to state where important information had come from.”
The author of the piece, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, wished to convey a single, emblematic college rape case that would, according to a statement, show “what it’s like to be on campus now… where not only is rape so prevalent but also that there’s this pervasive culture of sexual harassment.” Between her attempts to be as respectful as possible and her own overwhelming sympathy for Jackie, Erdely failed to properly identify the perpetrators and validate whether or not Jackie’s testimony was true. She did not ask members of the fraternity that was allegedly responsible to respond, and she did not follow up on the names—or pseudonyms—that Jackie had referenced.
Dealing with sensitive topics like this is a delicate process—the survivors’ voices absolutely need to be heard, but at the same time, journalists need to ensure that what they publish is objective and truthful.
According to the Columbia Journalism Review, when journalists write stories involving trauma and especially rape, they paint a grotesque picture of a horrifying event, and then convince the reader that the event should never have happened in the first place. These trauma stories require journalists to publicly expose the survivors’ very personal suffering. They say a lot about the news source’s values as a whole—perhaps more than they say about the survivors themselves.
It’s too easy to cross the line between good journalism and voyeurism, or sensationalizing survivors’ experiences. According to the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, reporting on sexual violence requires specialized interviewing skills, an understanding of the law, and a basic awareness about trauma’s psychological impact. Accounts of sexual harassment may only make partial sense, as the survivors’ recollection of the events may already be fragmented or even blocked out entirely. Incomplete and contradictory accounts are not necessarily indicative of deception, but rather of the interviewees’ struggle to make sense of what happened to them.
In this regard, cases like Erdely’s can be seen as anomalies; however, the existence of these anomalies casts doubt on the very real testimonies of survivors everywhere. Ironically, Erdely handled Jackie’s story exactly as she was supposed to, according to The Nation—she genuinely believed Jackie and wrote her article in a way that reflected this belief, but due to Jackie’s deceit, Erdely’s credibility as a journalist suffered. The final product ultimately came across as little more than a fictional horror story for readers to gawk at from a distance, rather than the revolutionary piece it was supposed to be that would forever change the way we view rape on college campuses.
Survivors’ voices absolutely need to be heard, but if there’s even the slightest bit of doubt that an interviewee’s words are false—as there was in the initial stages of the publication of this article in Rolling Stone—then their words should not be published at all. Journalists need to be responsible and know when to walk away from a source, as enticing and beneficial for an article as the source may seem, so that they don’t invalidate people’s experiences with their own sloppiness.