Rolling Stone's Campus Rape feature: A Look at a Journalistic Failure

Rolling Stone’s now infamous magazine feature “A Rape on Campus” unleashed a snowball effect that no one could have imagined. The article appeared to shed light and, as many news commentators have mentioned, “confirmed our darkest fears” about the reality of sexual assault on college campuses. However, what was once a story meant to provide voice and exposure for sexual assault victims has now managed to both damage a university’s reputation and back track sexual assault efforts on college campuses.

A quick recap: "A Rape on Campus", written by Sabrina Rubin Erdely, detailed the horrific gang rape of Jackie, a student at the University of Virginia who alleged she was sexually assaulted her freshman year by a fellow student named “Drew” and six other men at a frat party hosted by the  Phi Kappa Psi fraternity. The story mainly centered on Jackie’s account and detailed both the events that led up to her sexual assault (such as her prior relationship to Drew before the party) and the aftermath. Erdely’s feature painted a brutal picture of Jackie’s ordeal, from the callous reactions of her “friends” after her assault to the supposed inefficiency of the University’s administration in providing her with the resources and support necessary after such a traumatic event. According to the story, administrators were incompetent, frat brothers were callous sociopaths, and the prestigious university was a haven for rampant misogyny.

The story effectively tugged at the heartstrings of anyone and everyone who read it (including myself). It was a painful and heartbreaking account of a young woman betrayed by the very system that was supposed to protect her. After I read the article and shared it on social media, I noticed how my friends followed suit. Many thought that the article would function as a wake-up call to Congress and campus officials that things needed to get done to stop sexual assault, and quickly.

And for a while, changes were taking place. UVA suspended its fraternities, Erdely was acclaimed for her raw portrayal of such a devastating issue, and the story became one of Rolling Stone’s most shared articles. 

However the story quickly unraveled. The Washington Post reported numerous discrepancies, and Erdely was evasive in interviews. It was later found that Erdely had never even contacted Jackie’s alledged attackers or her friends, and recent facts revealed gapping plot holes in her story. Eventually, news outlets proved that Jackie’s attacker Drew didn’t even exist, there hadn’t even been a party at the fraternity on the night of Jackie’s “attack”, and numerous friends and university representatives revealed that Jackie had changed key details of her story (such as the identity of her attacker) multiple times.

The story was officially discredited and the magazine eventually retracted the story. Last week, the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism released their investigative report on Rolling Stone’s article, an extensive report on every mistake Erdely, her editors, and fact checkers made with the story. The report (which I encourage every journalism nerd to read) noted that the magazine had made fundamental errors in reporting and editing by relying on a single source, failing to interview the people involved, and refusing to drop the story even when early on, there were multiple discrepancies in her account, something even Erdely acknowledged before the story was published.

What is so frustrating, despite the fact that the article was Rolling Stone's fault, is that they continue to blame it on Jackie. Their biggest error was that while Erdely was given numerous accounts of sexual assault claims, she wanted an account that was “emblematic” of campus sexual assault and pursued the most extreme and brutal case, even when there were signs early on that there weren’t a lot of facts backing it. She demonstrated that, despite her good intentions, she clearly didn’t understand rape culture or sexual assault. Sexual assaults are not quantified by how gruesome they are, or by how rare or brutal they appear. All sexual assaults are awful, they all embody the ludicrous and harmful idea that consent isn’t valuable. It doesn’t matter if the assault was committed by a stranger, a boyfriend/girlfriend/best friend. It doesn't matter whether the victim was a straight A student or a drug junkie, whether he/she was under the influence of alcohol, f it was  a gang rape, or a drunken encounter: they all represent a failure to respect boundaries or consent, and they are all traumatic and heartbreaking ordeals. They are all emblematic of rape culture. Instead of wanting to give an honest account of the reality and complexity of sexual assault, Erdely wanted an attention grabbing story, and failed to consider the consequences for both the accused and rape victims everywhere.

Rolling Stone’s story was more than a journalistic failure: it left a trail of untold damage in its wake. The Phi Sigma Si fraternity was relentlessly vandalized, many prominent campus administrators had their names smeared in the mud, and, worst of all, the story set back efforts for sexual assault survivors everywhere. Several UVA sexual assault activists have noted that they’re worried more victims will be afraid to report their accounts, and the article sloppily handled a sensitive and complex issue. Though Rolling Stone alleges that the Columbia report was “punishment enough”, it sure as hell isn’t punishment enough.

This doesn’t mean that sexual assault prevention campaigns won’t be effective. The It's On Us campaign has gained momentum across college campuses, universities are under investigation, and the reception of the documentary The Hunting Ground demonstrates that efforts are still going strong. Despite Rolling Stone’s failure, there is still hope that the stories of sexual assault survivors will be heard, and rape culture can (and will be) dismantled. 

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