Flubbed story shows need for campus reform

WSN Editorial Board

Rolling Stone has retracted its controversial November 2014 story “A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA” following the results of a Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism independent investigation published Sunday. The report found that issues at every stage of the reporting and editing processes contributed to the magazine’s mishandling of the story. Doubts of the story’s accuracy originally arose when the Washington Post published a piece presenting facts that essentially made the story implausible as told in the article written by Sabrina Rubin Erdely. Unfortunately, this sort of gross mishandling negatively affects the way people perceive victims’ stories. Procedures for reporting and investigating sexual assault on college campuses must be amended in order to better deal with these situations and make sure that both those falsely accused and actual victims see justice.

The editors at the magazine chose to go ahead without confirming the attacker’s identity in any way, but named the fraternity where the attack supposedly occurred — Phi Kappa Psi. The UVA chapter of the national fraternity is now, rightfully, planning to sue Rolling Stone for damaging its reputation. This decisively shifts responsibility to the magazine instead of to the alleged victim. The co-authors of the Columbia report also stressed  that Rolling Stone was at fault for the inaccuracies in the story, not Jackie, the story’s subject. This incident highlights the importance in protecting the identity of both the accused and accuser until a full investigation is completed by either the university or police.

With the recent revelations about sexual assault on college campuses, many colleges, including NYU, have clarified descriptions of sexual assault, intensified  punishments and increased awareness of options and safe spaces.  NYU has updated its sexual misconduct, relationship violence and stalking policy to clarify forbidden activities, streamlined reporting processes and expanded support. The newly established Center for Sexual Misconduct Support Services provides a single point of contact, which is designed to support victims and protect their confidentiality with help from dedicated counselors, support facilitators and trained investigators. NYU’s new sexual assault training  is part of this initiative.

Erdely’s concerns about retraumatizing the victim led to unverified facts and accounts. Ultimately, a story that was meant to shed light on the very real issue of campus rape ended up causing harm. Managing editor Will Dana, in Rolling Stone’s initial response to claims questioning the veracity of Jackie’s story, published an apology wherein they said “there now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie’s account” and “our trust in her was misplaced.” In implying that Jackie was not trustworthy, Rolling Stone participated in the culture of victim-blaming that they claimed to condemn. Although the magazine later revised the wording of this statement, the damage had already been done. Here, journalistic failures are to blame, not the victims. Despite this failure, the fallout from this particular high-profile example should not discourage other victims from coming forward.

A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, April 7 print edition. Email the WSN Editorial Board at [email protected] 

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