In the 14 months since her story shocked the world, Jackie has been at the heart of a national debate about sexual assaults on college campuses, has become embroiled in a media scandal, and is the central figure in a series of defamation lawsuits.
Yet there’s one important fact missing about Jackie, the young woman who concocted a harrowing story about a gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity: her full name.
News organizations have declined to reveal Jackie’s full identity since her now-discredited story appeared in Rolling Stone magazine in November 2014. Her single-name identity — just Jackie — is in keeping with a long-standing journalistic convention against identifying alleged victims of sexual crimes to protect the accuser’s privacy.
As a result, news accounts of rape or sex-related crimes almost never name an accuser without their explicit permission, making it the only class of crime involving adults in which this practice is observed.
But that standard arguably doesn’t apply in Jackie’s case. Her story has been shown repeatedly to be false, both through news reporting and an extensive police investigation. Rolling Stone has withdrawn the article, “A Rape on Campus,” and apologized to its readers for publishing an account that a Columbia Journalism School report called “a story of journalistic failure.”
Even so, Jackie has remained nearly anonymous. No mainstream media outlet has reported Jackie’s full name. Investigators for the Charlottesville police, who found no evidence to support Jackie’s story, haven’t revealed it, either. Her identity has also been redacted in documents by a court hearing one of the lawsuits against Rolling Stone.
While it’s debatable whether knowing Jackie’s full name would serve much public purpose, the collective reticence to identify her plays into an underlying discussion about the media’s responsibility in identifying accusers. In contrast, the accused are regularly identified once they are charged.
Proponents of maintaining an accuser’s anonymity say it protects a presumed victim from retaliation or humiliation. But an emerging faction argues that not naming the alleged victims perpetuates a climate of silence and shame surrounding such crimes and discourages more people from reporting them.
Moreover, they say, it’s unfair for media accounts to shield the accuser but identify the accused, potentially putting a social stigma on a person who may be innocent.
The Washington Post, which broke many of the details that led to the unraveling of Jackie’s story, hasn’t named Jackie for a particular reason: The newspaper made an agreement with Jackie not to do so. In exchange for discussing her story with Post reporters, The Post agreed in late 2014 not to report her full name.
“We told her we wouldn’t name her, in large part because we thought she was a sex-assault victim at that time and we don’t name victims of sexual assault without their permission,” said Mike Semel, The Post’s Metro editor. “That agreement for anonymity needs to be considered until we are absolutely certain that there was no assault at all.”
Steve Coll, the dean of the Columbia Journalism School, said he, too, would be against revealing Jackie’s name. Columbia’s highly critical report on the Rolling Stone article, which Coll co-wrote, didn’t name Jackie when it was released in April.
“It’s an unusual situation, and I understand the argument on the other side, but I would not name her,” said Coll, a former Post managing editor. “She never solicited Rolling Stone to be written about. She’s not responsible for the journalism mistakes. To name her now just feels gratuitous, lacking sufficient public purpose. That could change depending on how the legal cases unfold, but that’s my sense now.”
Coll’s reluctance is seconded by Kristen Houser, spokeswoman for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, a social service organization. Houser said victims of a sexual predator are more willing to step forward and be named these days — witness the avalanche of accusers in the Bill Cosby case — but that many are still deterred by the social consequences.
“We still have an environment overall that is hostile and suspicious of people who say they were sexually assaulted,” she said. “For many people, there are risks that come along with public exposure,” such as harassment, bullying or additional violence. “It’s best to leave it up to the survivors” to make the call, Houser said.
But veteran journalist Geneva Overholser said silence and anonymity only perpetuate the social climate that rape victims and their advocates are fighting against.
Overholser was editor of the Des Moines Register in 1991 when the paper won the Pulitzer Prize for public service for a series on an Iowa woman who was raped. The woman, Nancy Ziegenmeyer, gave permission to the newspaper to use her name and photograph in the stories, sparking a national debate on the naming of rape victims.
Now an independent journalist in New York, Overholser has written that the practice of withholding accusers’ names from news stories “is a particular slice of silence that I believe has consistently undermined society’s attempts to deal effectively with rape. . . . Nothing affects public opinion like real stories with real faces and names attached. Attribution brings accountability, a climate within which both empathy and credibility flourish.”
She argues that the practice of not naming names hasn’t reduced the underreporting of sexual assaults or retaliation against accusers.
While Overholser said she doesn’t believe there are many false charges of rape — a number of studies bear this out — she said the practice of naming one side and not the other creates “fundamental unfairness” that can be exploited.
“I think [Jackie] should have been named in the first place,” she said in an interview. The “protection” of anonymity the media grants accusers “was never an appropriate one for journalists to afford, because it implies that we know what party deserves protection when someone brings charges of rape. It implies that we can determine guilt or innocence.”