The Rolling Stone article’s failures hurt in two ways for me.
1. As a journalist.
As someone who believes telling complete, accurate and engaging stories can change the world, I am the first to understand wanting a big story. Sometimes, I find myself having an idea of the perfect quote I could get from a particular source. That one detail that could tie the story together neatly and powerfully. That dramatic phrase from some crazy person that could be plastered across the front page. One can dream.
Big stories are out there, but most of the time they don’t fit into our convenient, tidy narratives that we often prefer or see at first glance. The reality of the world is grey. There is, usually, no black and white, no good and bad.
I am overwhelmingly disappointed by the reporter’s lack of respect for the greyness of the world. It is a journalist’s job and obligation to navigate the messiness of a situation and make sense of it to the reader in a way that is as true to reality as possible. Always, always, always the truth is what we seek. No matter what that truth is.
I skimmed through Columbia Journalism Review’s investigation into the reporting process of the Rolling Stone story, originally titled “A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA,” that was published on November 19, 2014 and has since been completely revoked.
What surprised me the most from the analysis was just how avoidable what happened was. Very simple and foundational journalistic practices were disregarded; like reaching out to those implicated in Jackie’s account, confirming the existence of the lifeguard from that night and reaching out to him, and finding and interviewing the three friends that were present the night she said she was attacked. These are all basic necessary steps early in the reporting process of the story.
The falsities that were printed would have been easily discovered long before the story had even fully developed had the reporter at least reached out to the other side(s) and asked for their accounts of what happened.
1. As a woman.
I can’t stress how important I think it is that this one story’s failure to do basic fact-checking not be a tool that is used to scare or silence survivors of sexual assault.
In the already harsh and painful reality victims of sexual violence face, speaking out can seem like the least appealing option — especially when survivors feel as if they won’t be believed.
However, research that has looked at reports to law enforcement has shown the overwhelming majority of victims that speak out are telling the truth.
The “Making a Difference” Project reviewed 2,059 cases from law enforcement in eight different U.S. communities in an 18-24 month period and found that only 7 percent (140 of the cases) were classified as false.
The National Center for the Prosecution of Violence Against Women says of other research into false sexual assault reports:
To date, the MAD study is the only research conducted in the U.S. to evaluate the percentage of false reports made to law enforcement. The remaining evidence is therefore based on research conducted outside the U.S., but it all converges within the same range of 2-8 percent.
I want to be an ally to survivors in any way I can. Through supporting them telling their own stories and through providing a platform when I can for their stories to be heard.
I believe speaking out about our experiences, whatever they may be, can be freeing. But the environment in which we share our stories is a key part of whether that experience helps or hurts our healing. We must push for an open and accepting environment for stories to be received and lifted up.
These two roles that I try to play can feel conflicting. I have a feeling that’s some of what Sabrina Erdely felt while trying to support Jackie.
However, when journalists responsibly tell survivors’ stories, these two desires can coexist. When journalists fail to do so, on the other hand, neither of these are upheld. A false story only fuels a culture that shames survivors and hinders an important conversation.