Like many people who care about both feminism and journalism, I followed the backlash against Rolling Stone’s crushing feature, “A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA,” very closely.
The controversy rested on journalist Sabrina Rubin-Erdely’s ethical obligations in sourcing for her story’s horrific opening gang-rape scene, which relied solely on “Jackie’s” testimony.
Today, the magazine printed a formal retraction, saying its trust in Jackie was misplaced. This is horse sh*t: discrepancies in accounts are exactly why journalists corroborate their information with multiple interviewees.
We still don't know whether Jackie willfully lied or not. She's not the villain here, Rolling Stone and Sabrina Rubin-Erdley are.
Outlets like The New Republic and Slate argued early on that Erdely should have interviewed Jackie’s assailants, and Richard Bradley and Reason went so far as to imply that Jackie’s account may even be a hoax.
They went on to say that squabbling over the lede anecdote diverts attention from what Erdely herself described as the “real story”: UVA’s systemic failure to support victims and address these crimes properly.
Both arguments are right. I am an ardent feminist, and I’ve written in the past about rape culture and the impossible burden of proof forced upon victims. Cross-examining women about traumatic experiences outside of a courtroom is misguided and wrong.
But by not corroborating the traumatic story with any other witnesses, Jackie was essentially left exposed without any support. New York Magazine’s Kat Stoeffel called the backlash “a trap for feminists.” She’s right.
But it was set by Rolling Stone and Rubin-Erdely -- and feminists, and those who believe Jackie, should be more outraged about it than anyone.
Of course, much of Erderly’s reporting still stands: the fact that UVA fails assault victims by mishandling rape reports was meticulously documented, and launched a much-needed dialogue about how colleges fail assault victims.
Many other victims came forward after the story ran to share that they, too, felt abandoned by the administration’s inept response. Fraternity activity was even suspended for the rest of the semester.
Against all odds, Erderly’s article seemed poised to be the one that finally gets America to care to face the ugly reality of rape on campus.
Now, shoddy reporting threatens to hijack all of that progress.
Let’s start with an obvious point: None of us know exactly what happened to Jackie at the Phi Psi party that night. This, in itself, is not suspicious or atypical. (And while skepticism about the story is important, there’s some gross opportunism in the gleeful pile-on of right-wingers hoping to catch Jackie in a lie.)
But let’s say you start from the assumption, as I do, that women tend not to wantonly dream up rapes, and that Jackie really was credible. That makes it even more important to fortify her story with thorough reporting.
There is nothing inherently wrong with writing as an advocate, and I commend Erdely for wanting to take down a toxic culture that has let so many young women down.
But packing that sort of punch requires building a powerful case -- not only to “prove” that the gang-rape happened, (no one can, stupid!) but to “prove” that women really do endure horrible abuse, and that colleges are doing nothing to protect them.
As a result, Jackie’s account was vital to the argument (which is why it was used as the lede, and why Erderly’s argument that it was tangential to the “real story” is unconvincing.)
Contrary to feminist criticism, corroborating Jackie’s account is not an inherent attack on her credibility or character. Many pieces seemed to ask what good interviewing rapists would even do, which is silly.
Erdely was of course under no obligation to hand over her piece, or print a “balanced” account along the lines of, "WELL DREW SAYS JACKIE’S A LYING SLUT SO I GUESS WE’LL NEVER KNOW, Y’ALL!!!"
On the contrary, a journalist is still empowered to make critical judgments about sources after interviewing them all. If Jackie was credible, she is not made less credible by Drew’s denial.
Any journalist also knows that there’s a huge difference between sources interviewed or consulted, and sources included in the final piece.
The “boilerplate” line of “Drew denied allegations” is generally a substitute for lengthier quotes, specifically because a journalist has deemed the source’s points invalid or derailing.
Furthermore, as noted by Alyssa Rosenburg at the Washington Post, know what’s a fun trick-of-the-trade when interviewing dickheads??? Making them look like lying dickheads if, in fact, they are. If these frat dudes really are sociopathic monsters, how better to illustrate that point than a sheepish “um, no” after a powerful account of a gang-rape???
Also, Erdely was on a mission to explore rape culture. Let’s say one of the nine guys who was allegedly in the room confessed to everything and talked about being pressured into participating -- that in no way excuses him, but it might provide an important insight into the culture that perpetuates violence. Why didn’t Erdely try to find out?
But this wasn’t just about reaching out to assailants -- Erdely also failed to layer Jackie’s account with the testimonies of her friends. Where are their voices? We know that “Randall” declined to be interviewed out of loyalty to his own frat, which is bonkers.
But what about Cindy, the “self-declared hook-up queen,” who convinced Jackie not to report the rape that night and allegedly asked later, “Why didn’t you just have fun with it? A bunch of hot Phi-Psi guys?”
Erdely never mentioned reaching out to Cindy. Why the hell not? Why not ask, “Hey, Cindy… or should I say, ‘Hook-up Queen?’ Can I ask whether you advised Jackie not to go to the hospital after a gang-rape, or later told her to put a happy spin on it? I’m curious why... because that sounds really bananas.” Now, I’m not sure what Cindy would say, but whatever it is could well be journalistically compelling.
But Erdely didn’t do any of those things, and instead allows the account to rest solely on Jackie’s shoulders. When asked about whether she attempted to contact the assailants, Erdely initially said that she tried and couldn’t find them.
Later, her story changed to the fact that she made a promise to Jackie not to seek them out. (Before she admitted making the deal, I found it hard to believe that a socially-connected student or recent grad could be unfindable in 2014. Sure enough, a quick search on UVA’s website yields contact info for any student.)
Erdely is also evasive about whether or not she herself even knows who these men are.
Jackie’s discomfort and fear over naming her attackers or friends is understandable, and not doing so is her choice. But her story’s lack of any corroborating information means that she may not have been the right source for Erdely’s article.
Erdely obviously spoke to many rape victims at UVA who also felt shafted by the bureaucratic aftermath, many of whom surely had stories, which could have facilitated more reporting.
I’m guessing these stories were often closer to our expectations of campus rapes: date rapes, and women too drunk to consent. But Erdely went with Jackie for a very specific reason: her case was more unusual, extreme and horrifying.
In zeroing in on Jackie instead of women like UVA rape activist Sara Surface, Erdely perpetuated the myth that the scarier, less recognizable rapes are more important or actionable.
Most people describe “rape culture” as society collectively condoning rape. This is true, but misleading -- society does mostly condemn “dark alley” rapes, but not “drunk-girl-at-party” rapes. "Rape culture” is being so skeptical about women’s boundaries that these scenarios seem incomparably different.
I wish Erdely had centered on a “familiar” and more verifiable rape story, and used her talent and platform to convince readers that it matters as much as stories like Jackie’s.
Instead, they went with the splashy, single-sourced account and left Jackie vulnerable to mounting criticism online and, I’m sure, in real life as well.
The message of this vitally important piece has been irrevocably undermined in the public consciousness. Poor Jackie will be trotted out by conservatives to prove that rape isn't real until the f*cking end of time.
Far from protecting Jackie, Erdely and Rolling Stone essentially thrust her into the national spotlight without doing their due diligence to provide her any narrative padding.
You really want to protect a vulnerable source? Then don't force her to carry the weight of an entire investigative feature alone.