I don’t know now whether “Jackie,” the young woman profiled in “A Rape on Campus,” was actually gang raped at a University of Virginia fraternity party.
But I fear that the credibility of not only rape victims, but also of journalists reporting on campus sexual assault, has been damaged with that story, retracted by Rolling Stone managing editor Will Dana. On Friday, he 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.”
Why didn’t Rolling Stone insist on additional reporting from journalist Sabrina Rubin Erdely, and why didn’t editors do the fact-checking such a story not only deserves but requires?
What about the public’s trust in journalism? Social media is lit up with comments defending Jackie, while others attack her and all women who “cry rape,” as some of these commenters put it.
I am sad and I am angry, because the furor draws attention away from campus sexual assault, a subject I’ve written on extensively, following the work of Sen. Claire McCaskill, and the tragic suicides of high school girls such as Rehtaeh Parsons and Audrie Pott.
Many of us believe that campus sexual assault is a very real problem, and Erdely wanted to prove it. I can understand that desire to convince the public.
Earlier this year, I was contacted by a grad student at a prestigious West Coast university. She had been raped in her dorm room by a fellow student, she told me, and she included photos of her bruises and other injuries. She sent me a detailed, multipage, first-person account, the police report and names of legal professors who were fighting for her case.
Yet the prosecuting attorney declined to press charges. School officials, at least, had worked out schedules and even walking routes across campus so that she would never have to see the man who had allegedly assaulted her.
I could have written one hell of a story. It would have made compelling copy, a dramatic piece that you couldn’t put down until you’d reached the end.
But I didn’t know if I could prove that it was true. It would have required extensive reporting, something more appropriate for an in-depth investigative piece.
The young woman was willing to go public with her name. She wanted some sort of justice for whatever had happened, and I felt sorry for her. She’d taken an academic leave of absence and didn’t know whether she would return to school.
But the problem of rape on our college campuses is too serious and too real to risk diverting attention with any potentially false accusation or even with detailing a case that cannot stand up to scrutiny. How many times have I heard people invoke “Duke lacrosse team” whenever rape is mentioned?
The very nature of the crime of rape makes it difficult to prove. It often goes unreported because women don’t want to go through the aftermath of reporting the crime, whether it’s to unfeeling police interrogating the victim, or a cross-examination in a courtroom if the case actually goes that far. Women risk becoming social pariahs on campus, especially if the alleged perpetrator is a popular athlete.
I have no doubt that rape happens to high school girls and to college students. My best friend’s daughter was raped at a party by hockey players and then shamed in high school by those who decided that she had been “asking for it.” Two suicide attempts and six years later, she’s still struggling with PTSD and other mental health problems triggered by that night. I’ve known this young woman since she was 7 and I’m convinced that she’s telling the truth — but that isn’t enough for me to write a feature-length piece about her in the pages of Rolling Stone or The Washington Post.
What I write here is commentary, although I fact-check and report as much as possible to provide a foundation of truth. We have to have the highest standards possible in our profession, despite the proliferation of the ever-hungry 24-hour news cycle and despite the unrelenting competition to grab readers’ attention.
At the end of the day, we have to tell the truth, a truth that we can prove, not just a truth that we may personally believe in our gut. Because sharing the truth about what goes on at our nation’s colleges is the only way we’re going to get the changes made in policies and attitudes to protect both our young women and our young men.