The disintegration of the central anecdote in Rolling Stone’s recent expose of the University of Virginia’s treatment of sexual assault, “A Rape on Campus,” began with two questions about one facet of Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s reporting: Had she talked to the men who Jackie, a student who told a harrowing story about being gang-raped at a UVA fraternity, accused of assaulting her? And if she had not interviewed them, was it because they were unavailable, or because Erdely had promised Jackie that she would not contact the men to protect her from retaliation?
From that initial question have grown other conversations about the challenges of covering sexual assault cases. Do inconsistencies mean that a source is lying, or are they proof of trauma? What standards of verification should reporters use when dealing with victims of sexual assault? And what are the risks of using point-of-view stories like Jackie’s to draw reader attention to systemic issues like campus procedures for handling rape allegations, which affect many students, rather than just one?
“A Rape on Campus” is not only Jackie’s story. But her account of being assaulted, one after another, by seven men, while two others looked on, is the lede, and it is the part of the piece that has provoked the strongest response. The Washington Post reported multiple discrepencies in Jackie’s story today, and Rolling Stone acknowledged in a note to readers from editor Will Dana that “[i]n 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.”
Rolling Stone may not have done the work necessary to verify Jackie’s story. But while the journalistic choices Erdely and her editors made are serious, they should not be mistaken for definitive proof that Jackie — or any trauma survivor whose story evolves or has gaps — is making up their entire account.
Don’t be surprised if accounts only make partial sense. Frequently survivors of sexual violence ‘shut down’ emotionally: their recall may become fragmentary, and in some cases they may even block out an event entirely. Incomplete and contradictory accounts are not prima facie evidence of deception, but rather of the struggle interviewees may experience in making sense of what happened to them.
The existence of those inconsistencies doesn’t mean reporters shouldn’t work to sift through those contradictory or incomplete accounts to verify survivors’ testimony. The Center for Public Integrity’s Kristen Lombardi, who five years ago published a a major story on how campuses — including the University of Virginia — handle sexual assault cases, says she felt the best way to protect her sources was to vigorously report out their accounts of their assaults.
That meant obtaining their help in getting records of campus disciplinary proceedings, having them sign waivers that gave administrators permission to discuss their cases, and speaking to their alleged assailants. First, though, she did background interviews with survivors, and explained what her reporting process would look like in detail. And she only continued to report out the stories of victims who were comfortable with what that process would involve.
Lombardi says she told sources that doing that level of verification “is what I have to do. ‘It doesn’t necessarily mean that I don’t believe you…Just because I have to ask questions and figure out to the best of my ability exactly what happened and talk to everyone who’s involved including the alleged perpetrator doesn’t mean I don’t believe you. It just means, it’s only going to make this story stronger.’ And once I did that, most students overwhelmingly were comfortable with that.”
If her sources did not feel comfortable participating in the verification process, Lombardi decided not to pursue their stories, because it was not worth it to put unwilling people through a difficult process. Sadly, that was an option “because there’s no shortage of campus rape stories out there. You will be able to find students who have gone through the process and are willing to help you verify [their accounts].”
Bruce Shapiro, the executive director of the Dart Center, emphasized that vigorous reporting does not have to trade off with sensitivity to victims of sexual assault.
“I do think that reporters can be vulnerable, empathetic reporters can be vulnerable to thinking that asking tough questions automatically re-traumatizes sources,” he told me. “There’s a difference between distress and actual trauma. Distress is short-term. Trauma is really damaging to someone in the long run. There’s not a lot of evidence that verifying a story is going to re-traumatize someone.”
Lombardi said that being overly deferential to victims’ accounts, and making agreements like the one Erdely did with Jackie, might avoid discomfort up front, but that the negative long-term risks were obvious.
“I see it as ultimately that’s who you’re protecting. I feel [Jackie],” Lombardi said. “Her story is being doubted at the highest levels…I think as a reporter, you have a duty to protect your sources and to speak to as many sides as possible. That’s your duty. One of the ways you do that is to make sure you cross every t and dot every i, and make sure you do it with as much care and consideration as you can.”
Shapiro also argued that trauma reporting frequently presents reporters with a “narrative challenge” of how to dramatize systematic problems, especially ones about which the public already has strong preconceived ideas.
“How do you get people engaged in an ongoing way in a national scandal involving the victimization of women? How do you get people engaged when people think they know the story already?” Shapiro asked. “This is not only true of rape. It’s true of stories about torture, about what veterans go through, crime victims. Sometimes focusing on that the details of what happened on the one hand are deeply engaging and are a source of empathy by readers, and on the other hand, you don’t want those details to take over your story when your story’s really about an issue.”
“We’ve all ended up focusing on Jackie, is Jackie telling the truth or not, what really happened, who are the perps, instead of on the core issue of how a university responds when a woman walks into a dean’s office with a serious allegation of sexual assault and when there’s a systematic problem on campus,” Shapiro continued. “The details do matter, of course they matter. But spectacular gotcha details can also distract.”
In the end, he suggested, “I think it would be a mistake to distract from the core issue, which is why this story’s so emotional and so powerful, which is the enormous problem of sexual assault on college campuses and the documented inadequacy of response by university administrations. The journalistic tragedy would be if we stopped looking at these stories, or stopped looking at the University of Virginia.”