In order to change the current culture and systems that allow colleges and universities to systematically fail victims of sexual assault in the name of self-preservation and rosier PR, many things must take place — not the least of which is the spreading of awareness of such egregious failures through deep-digging, responsible journalism. It’s for this reason that Rolling Stone‘s recent article “A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA” was so explosive; it’s also the reason that the magazine’s bad-to-worse handling of the story has caused such a massive firestorm.
A few weeks after the magazine published its account of “Jackie’s” brutal assault by seven members of a UVA fraternity, some discrepancies in the details of the student’s story began to surface. In response, Rolling Stone posted a statement on Friday, signed by managing editor Will Dana, which admitted, “there now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie’s account,” and then added, “We have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced.”
This “apology” didn’t sit well with many readers, as it seemed, rather than taking responsibility for its own failure to fact-check, the magazine was effectively placing the blame squarely on the shoulders of a possible trauma victim. The backlash was swift, and many took to Twitter, using the hashtag #IStandWithJackie to call out the magazine, pointing out that trauma victims often misremember details, and that this didn’t necessarily mean her story was fundamentally untrue.
I’m sorry that Rolling Stone felt the need to blame a rape victim for their poor journalistic practices #IStandWithJackie
— Laura Goldblatt (@lgoldblatt) December 5, 2014
Rather than further apologizing for its tone-deaf apology, the magazine responded by quietly deleting its statement and publishing an updated version the next day. The new version explains the editorial choices in greater detail and puts the responsibility of fact-checking and well-rounded research back on its own plate. The statement reads in part:
We published the article with the firm belief that it was accurate. Given all of these reports, however, we have come to the conclusion that we were mistaken in honoring Jackie’s request to not contact the alleged assaulters to get their account. In trying to be sensitive to the unfair shame and humiliation many women feel after a sexual assault, we made a judgment – the kind of judgment reporters and editors make every day. We should have not made this agreement with Jackie and we should have worked harder to convince her that the truth would have been better served by getting the other side of the story. These mistakes are on Rolling Stone, not on Jackie. We apologize to anyone who was affected by the story and we will continue to investigate the events of that evening.
The heated debates this debacle has left in its wake continue to unfold — while some argue this is a prime example of “victim culture” and should deter journalists from sensationalizing the stories of alleged victims, others fear that because the magazine failed do its due diligence in ensuring it had all the facts, it isn’t only Jackie’s story that is now cast in doubt, but the stories of other victims seeking a voice in environments all too eager to silence them. Some feel it only gives fodder to those who would deny the pervasive nature of rape culture on campuses and in our country as a whole, and still others worry that watching an alleged victim’s story picked apart on an international stage may deter other survivors from coming forward for fear of intense scrutiny.
But no matter what your opinion on these complex and divisive issues, one thing seems clear, at least from a journalistic standpoint: We understand that any questioning of an alleged victim’s story can often be seen as an attack on that person, and so a journalist’s attempt to respect the victim’s story and to protect that individual is understandable — but when this is taken to the point of failing to seek out the whole truth, which is the fundamental job of a journalist and the heart of journalistic integrity, then the publication has not done its job, either in reporting or in attempting to protect its source; this spectacular backfire seems proof of that. After all, wouldn’t it have been better for everyone involved if the journalist had risked offending the subject of her article by asking the tough questions rather than letting the public and countless other journalists do so after the fact?