Rolling Stone’s attempts at apology for misreported UVA article cannot repair inaccurate reporting
Our Facebook feeds may finally find relief from one of the most troublingly stories of this year but that doesn’t mean the story is over.
In fact, we may just be finding out exactly how much damage has been done.
Last November, Rolling Stone published “A Rape on Campus,” a feature story about the alleged violent gang rape of a University of Virginia (UVA) student at a fraternity on campus.
Sexual assault on campus has been a major focus of the media recently, and rightly so as one in five women will be sexually assaulted before graduating from college.
It wasn’t surprising that this story sent shockwaves across the country, generating outrage and criticism – what was surprising was what came after.
Criticism of UVA, Greek life and environments that permit or promote sexual violence quickly dissipated as the article itself came under the spotlight of scrutiny when The Washington Post published a damning investigation, revealing inconsistencies and falsehoods in the account of the anonymous victim, known only by the pseudonym, ‘Jackie.’
Instead of generating much-needed discussions about sexual assault and safety on college campuses, “Rape on Campus” has garnered attention for the poor, unethical journalistic practices of Rolling Stone.
But it’s time to drop it.
It’s understandable, and unavoidable, that the media would continue discussing the article but it’s time to move on and stop causing more damage and pain to those involved and rape survivors across the country.
On Sunday Rolling Stone officially retracted the story, in a necessary acknowledgment of its failures. But that hardly undoes the damage their carelessness and reckless incompetence has caused.
With the release of a highly detailed investigative report from the Columbia Journalism School – which essentially did all the research editors and fact-checkers at Rolling Stone should have done – it’s clear “Rape on Campus” never should have been published.
Rolling Stone made a multitude of glaring errors, most notably failing to reach out to additional sources for corroboration. By not reaching out to sources, they denied Phi Kappa Psi – the fraternity whose members Jackie accused – the chance to respond to her allegations. Further, they never attempted to verify the identity of Jackie’s alleged attackers. They also never spoke directly to the friends Jackie said could verify her story.
Although the truth of what actually happened to Jackie may never be known – and she very well might have been sexually assaulted – the reputation of the fraternity may also be irrevocably, and unjustly, ruined.
Simply, the editors and the article’s author did not do their jobs as journalists.
Had they gone through normal fact-checking procedures, they would’ve realized “Rape on Campus,” which accused individuals and an institution of a heinous crime, was dangerously inaccurate.
Instead, Rolling Stone simply relied on pseudonyms and sympathy when working with Jackie and failed to recognize their moral responsibility when joining a conversation about a deeply serious and problematic topic – one that is already plagued by exaggerations about how many false accusations are made.
Both the story and criticism on its inaccuracies went viral, generating discussion about the potential for false rape allegations, not about what really matters – how many people are sexually assaulted.
The percent of false rape allegations is laughably low – just 2 to 8 percent of all accusations reported to the police are false. But of the total amount of sexual assaults committed, only 68 percent are ever reported. Just a tiny fraction of people who come forward are lying – a statistic just about never discussed for other crimes – but “Rape on Campus” now perpetuates the idea that rape survivors are lying.
Instead of emphasizing that 98 percent of rapists will never see the inside of a jail cell, this article now perpetuates the ideologies behind rape culture – a society which blames, ignores and vilifies survivors, rather than punishing attackers and working toward systemic change to stop sexual assault.
Rolling Stone failed in its duty to engage in meaningful and necessary conversations about sexual assault. The magazine hurt rape survivors everywhere. Now, those who come forward – and many never do because of the stigma attached to sexual assault – face an additional obstacle in telling their stories and having their attackers brought to justice. They may now have to prove they aren’t lying – something society should’ve overcome by now.
Rolling Stone betrayed rape survivors as well as UVA and Phi Kappa Psi. UVA and the fraternity now have to figure out how to repair their reputations that were unjustly damaged by the article.
To the individuals and institutions that have been directly impacted by the article, Rolling Stone’s retraction has little impact. The magazine certainly needed to retract the piece, but its editors can’t retract all the damage they’ve done.
The magazine has fed into notions that perpetuate rape culture and needs to re-center the conversation on rape survivors – not on false allegations.
It’s time to stop talking about Rolling Stone’sserious errorsand instead bring awareness of sexual assault to the forefront.