By now, most people are familiar with the unravelling of the Rolling Stone story penned by Sabrina Rubin Erdely that chronicles the alleged gang-rape of "Jackie" at the Phi Kappa Psi house on the University of Virginia's campus back in 2012. The story touched off a lot of (much needed) discussion about sexual assault on college campuses and the issues surrounding it. That part is important. Unfortunately, in a story where accusations exist, it is important to note that the details are either your triumph or your downfall. In this case, they're looking to be the latter which is a shame because something clearly happened to Jackie.
The story itself is a "good" one. Well, as good as a story can be that outlines a sexual assault and a schools seeming lack of concern and intent to address an issue. I've only been to UVA once in my life to attend the graduation of a friend from law school. I didn't even know the school was founded by Thomas Jefferson. Point is, I knew very little about UVA before reading this article and now I know names of administrators. I've also learned some disturbing lyrics to a song sung - seemingly proudly - by students and alumni called "Rugby Road" titled after the name of the road where the fraternities are housed on UVA's campus. Jackie's story, if true - and that's where the problems come in - speaks to a culture at UVA that is more concerned with tradition, history, and public image (aka the struggle of most "prestigious" schools when it comes to negative attention) than the safety of its students, namely young women being assaulted almost casually.
That story is going to become lighter fluid on a fire because it names a school, a fraternity, and talks about a culture of rape at said fraternity. No way that the parties involved weren't going to start fact checking. And sure as shooting, they did. The details of Jackie's story began to fall apart regarding her accuser, the fraternity itself, and the aftermath of her assault. I'm aware that many people who experience trauma block out certain memories and it is entirely possible for facts to get jumbled. This is not Jackie's problem, that is Erdely's problem. Jackie mentioned friends who were involved in the immediate aftermath who are now disputing her recollection of events and weren't even spoken to by Erdely. Rolling Stone probably should have deaded the story. Which is a shame because the story of Jackie's thats corroborated by her friends is STILL a compelling story and one that could still stand as an important touching off point. To be clear, I believe something happened to that poor girl. I don't doubt that at all. It's more the reporting that has caused the issue.
Also, none of the people who were accused in the story were contacted or got to have their say. I'm no journo. I'm just a blogger, evidenced by my many typos and opinion-based writing career. But I can't imagine that its okay to write a story accusing people and not even reaching out to those being accused. Sure they'll probably turn you down, but you have to at least try, right? And in this case, it presents and odd dichotomy. The story was too excited to tell itself, so to speak, but the larger issues addressed are still important. The fraternity under fire in the article might be falsely accused in this case, but the larger issue of sexual assault in fraternities on these campuses is still important. Hell, this particular may STILL have the problem outlined in the story, but because of the details that were wrong, they get to play the unfair victim role and many might ignore that fact. While every facet of the story is worthy of note as a way of discussing a larger problem. the bigger story becomes the reporting itself and the publications willingness to publish it.
Very few publications are above reproach. They've ALL made mistakes. In an industry built upon breaking stories and finding the important angle to make a story stick, many reporters have taken leeway. It's fictitious, but on The Wire's 5th season, they outline how a low-level reporter goes from nobody to somebody via the creation of a story that doesn't exist THEN gets outed by whose been living the lie he's reporting…falsely. And we all remember the story of Stephen Glass (seemingly the inspiration for Wire's last season), the former journo who fabricated countless stories and sources on his rise to stardom at The New Republic (a site going thru its own issues right now as well).
There's a certain trust we place into the hands of journalists. We assume they've done their due dilligence to get a story together. We also assume the editors vet and go over with a fine tooth comb the details. We assume that what's presented is true. And I'd wager that most times it is. Sources are cited, quotes are corroborated, facts are checked. But sometimes a story is too good to worry about in its entirety. And many of us who write have fallen victim to that trap. Bloggers fuck up all the time. The race to first is a lot faster than the race to right. This particular story took a long time to come together, and it STILL fell through the cracks. No publisher wants to have to issue an apology to its readers or acknowledge they didn't do enough to establish the veracity of a story.
It's hard out here in the journo world.
This is also how I know I'm not meant to fact check. I read the story. It didn't even dawn on me how many angles weren't covered or that she didn't talk to all the folks involved in the story. I'd have just read it and been like…dammit UVA, you all suck. And they probably still do, but not for the exact reasons supported by the story. I hope this Rolling Stone issue doesn't obscure the larger issues. It's important to talk about sexual assault on college campuses because its happening. Innocent people's lives are being altered in an instant, and its important to address that.
Just a damn shame that Rolling Stone got in its own way of pushing forward the conversation on a topic worthy of discussion.