More Than a "Journalistic Failure"; How Rolling Stone’s Story Impacted Future Victims of Sexual Assault

In November of last year, Rolling Stone magazine published ‘A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA”. The article told the story of Jackie, a University of Virginia student who claimed she was gang-raped at a Phi Kappa Psi function by a group of frat boys. Between the common mishandling or ignorance of rape cases at colleges, the bad press Greek life has gotten for wild parties and bad behavior, and the overall changing attitudes towards rape culture, this story garnered a lot of attention and controversy. Many people were outraged at the fraternity and the school for allowing another party assault to happen, and called for justice for this rape victim along with the hundreds of others like her. Jackie’s story became the perfect example for a movement to follow, except for one problem: it may not be true.

Soon after the story broke, Jackie came under the typical scrutiny most rape victims face after reporting an attack; having their every action questioned, being forced to repeat and relive the incident dozens of times, and facing the unfortunate but common attitude that the attack did not happen or was consensual. When several inconsistencies began to emerge in Jackie’s account, however, more and more people began to question whether the attack actually happened. Phi Kappa Psi did not have any events the night she claimed the assault happened, and one of the boys she did identify was not a member of the fraternity. She also changed the number of boys that attacked her when retelling what happened, and her friends claim that they tried to convince her to go to the police, contradictory to her earlier account that her friends pressured her out of going to the police because they did not want the incident to affect their popularity. Inconsistencies and contradicting facts began to mount against Jackie, and recently Rolling Stone retracted their article, with the editor and author who broke the story apologizing for not following up on the story sufficiently.

The biggest criticism Rolling Stone has faced regarding this issue is that this entire situation could have been prevented. If they had followed up with sources or asked Jackie for the names of her attackers to get their side of the story, Rolling Stone would have gotten the facts. We may never know what really happened to Jackie; maybe she made the whole thing up for attention, maybe she got confused, or maybe she was pressured by the magazine to give them a great story that would helps hundreds of other victims. Some women or men who are raped may give a different account of what happened at first, either due to not wanting to get the attacker(s) or themselves in trouble. Jackie’s friends did say she was very upset and distraught one night after a date and claimed she’d been sexually assaulted, so her account of what happened could have been misconstrued due to the traumatic event she endured. If a victim’s details of his or her attack seem to be even the slightest bit untrue at any point, their story is discredited, the sympathy shifts to the accused attacker, and the victim becomes the target of anger and ridicule. The scrutiny rape victims undergo to get their stories heard discourages many people from coming forward, for fear of not being believed or having their reputations ruined. Rolling Stone wanted to get a story out there, and in their eagerness to break a story made them forget the other side of the case. Many people’s lives have been ruined by false rape accusations, which is why people tend to be skeptical when it comes to these cases. The backlash caused by this story has most likely caused dozens of victims to rethink coming forward for fear of facing the same anger and criticism Jackie must now face.

Now if Jackie did fabricate her story for any reason and was never attacked, she has done every rape victim a disservice and created another reason for people to discredit assault accusations. How, if Rolling Stone had properly followed up with sources and done a thorough investigation of the case, all while staying on the side of the victim unless she was proven completely wrong, they could have discovered the story was false or what actually happened to Jackie that night.  Whether Rolling Stone was in a hurry to publish an article that would gain the magazine a lot of attention or sincerely wanted to help Jackie tell her story, their intentions do not make up for the fact that they botched this story, and created many unintended and disastrous consequences. A group of boys have been falsely accused of something they may not have done which could follow them for the rest of their lives, a school’s reputation has been tarnished, and most importantly every rape victim who steps forward after this incident will have a harder time getting his or her story believed. Victims of sexual assault should never be afraid to come forward and demand justice, but Rolling Stone may have made coming forward even harder than it already is.