The recently reheated debacle regarding “Rolling Stone’s” coverage of a an alleged gang rape at UVA in November 2014 has inspired numerous debates and discussions. No doubt, the original piece was a blow to journalism, the reputation of UVA and its students, and to rape victims everywhere. The renewed interest derives from a recent investigation examining the journalistic failures by the magazine, led by the Columbia School of Journalism. We here at Literally, Darling have assembled the four most helpful, insightful responses from across the far reaches of the internet to create a synthesized discussion surrounding this complicated issue.
“I Was Sexually Assaulted At UVA. I Don’t Accept the Reporter’s Apology” by Kirsten Schofield
“It’s never been clearer that none of “Rolling Stone’s” actions helped create meaningful change for survivors of campus sexual assault; instead, it shifted blame to protect their falsified report.”
In her apology issued Sunday, Erdely says she hopes her “mistakes” don’t “silence the voices of victims that need to be heard,” but that’s exactly what she’s done. The Columbia Journalism Review speculates that “Rolling Stone’s” “failure may have spread the idea that many women invent rape allegations.” A cursory look around the Internet this week will tell you it has. We’re not back where we started—this is negative progress.”
This piece is important for a lot of reasons. For one, it’s so important in these situations to listen to survivors first. The fact this piece was written not only by a survivor, but by a UVA alumna makes it important. Throw in that she is a writer and also a sexual assault crisis center worker, and this makes it, to me, one of the most important takes on the situation. The piece takes on the “Rolling Ston”e piece from a few different angles. For one, the author asks why Erdely why was insistent on telling Jackie’s story when there are most likely dozens of survivors on UVAs campus right now. The Columbia report tells us that Erdely talked to some of these survivors but decided that their stories were not compelling enough. She also explains how this mistake has only added fuel to the fire of MRAs and doubters that sexual assault happens, which is a grave, grave mistake. —Kristin
“The Truth About UVA and Ferguson Isn’t Good Enough for P.C. Crowd” by John McWhorter
I was fascinated by this article that takes a four point approach to debunking why we cannot accept a narrative the furthers the cause over the facts. It’s easy to say (and I did) that while Jackie’s case may have been fabricated, the conversation that it started nationwide about sexual assault in colleges allowed the means to justify the ends. In the immediate aftermath of questions being raised about its validity, we all wanted to bandwagon behind the victim because the atrocities were too horrible to fathom. Something had to have occurred and to say otherwise was to promulgate the insidious culture of maligning victims. The shock and awe nature of Erdely’s article also made people who had never thought about rape as an issue have deep feelings about it, and isn’t that a good thing? But McWhorter argues that:
Neglecting facts will always seem just plain dumb and dishonest.
Enshrining narrative over facts is part of the definition of a mob.
Treating facts as inconvenient casts a pall of mendaciousness over legitimate cases of abuse.
Pushing aside facts for stories too often means throwing someone else under the bus.
While we want to think that the dialogue was started even despite there being no proof of evidence of this rape occurring, it also dramatically set things back. The same people who ardently defended it now feel sheepish and are turning on any report that comes in. The women who are reporting their rapes now have an even higher burden of proof as the victim. Colleges that are now scared of being caught in the crosshairs of this kind of PR nightmare are now going overboard on punitive action on even the barest hint of a scandal. Is this the platform we want to use to change our rape society culture? McWhorter has me thinking no. —Katie
“Atone, ‘stone’!” by Michael Goodwin
“The writer wasn’t looking for a story. She was looking for a case that confirmed the story she already had in her head.”
It is both remarkable and frightening that such a heavy topic and (slowly) progressing movement has been completely undercut by one piece of journalism. In his column, Goodwin suggests that the “Rolling Stone” article fell victim to a confirmation bias; Erdely had a groundbreaking, front-page story and stopped at nothing to produce that piece.
Erdely sought out a case with shock value. This story had it all, accuracy and corroboration be damned. A young girl, bloodied and battered, disregarded by faculty and a threat to her friends’ social status. I fully understand the magazine’s desire to not further traumatize Jackie in trying to verify her story, but the bigger issue at play is that in protecting this victim, “Rolling Stone” allowed the entire story to be picked apart and discounted.
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t hear about these stories. The dissemination of fact and knowledge can only help the movement to end victim blaming, victim shaming, and a general cloud of doubt surrounding sexual assault allegations, particularly on college campuses. But this blatant disregard for journalistic processes, fact checking, and the integrity of all parties involved has had the (presumably) unintended consequence of strengthening a culture of victim mistrust. —Nicole
Fact-Ish, by Jon Stewart
In his usual style, Stewart combines satire and pop culture references with a serious critique of the lack of accountability in the backlash of Columbia’s skewering account of the report. The best quote:
“This UVA story is monumental fuck-up territory. Campus rape happens with shocking frequency—a very real under-reported problem that many college and university administrations have met with a lack of concern and stonewalling. Victims need help and support yet somehow, in a sea of verifiable assaults, you managed to ‘Where’s Waldo’ the only rape story that not only would fail to get your point across but set the cause back. Someone’s got to go.”
Here, Stewart hits the nail on the head: the biggest consequence of this piece is not journalistic integrity (though that is a serious matter), but the derailing of the “very real and under-reported issue of rape on campus.” This video succinctly coordinates media responses to the review and delivers a concise conclusion about its effects in the real world. As usual, way to go, Jon Stewart.
No matter what angle you take, this catastrophe has ripple effects through the ethics of journalism, mass media, campus safety, fraternity culture, the reputation of UVA, and more general rape culture. The key takeaway uniting many of these pieces is this: While this one instance is mired in doubt, no doubt should be cast on future reports by rape victims. “Rolling Stone’s” eager blame-shifting made “Jackie” responsible for their failures in reporting, thus taking part in the toxic, victim-blaming rape culture that has only recently been dragged out into the light. But while “Rolling Stone’s” credibility may be in question, the testimonies of future victims need to be taken as seriously as the law allows. Even this one instance doesn’t change the statistic that only about 2 percent of all reported rapes turn out to be false accusations.
While this case has cast a shadow of doubt on “Rolling Stone” and on UVA (which, let’s be honest, has already earned some of that doubt), let’s also remember what the spotlight lent to the cause: “The rape culture we try so hard to deny was brought out from its diseased shadows and shocked people with its true face.” Through the glass darkly, we can be thankful for what this case brought about: a serious interrogation of sexual assault policies at 55 universities; a newfound awareness for the failures of mass media; and potentially a more critical society. If you remember nothing else from this case, remember this: the apparent falseness of “Jackie’s” account doesn’t erase the very real problems of campus safety or rape culture. —Natalie
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