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How Rolling Stone failed rape survivors

Rolling Stone's University of Virginia fiasco is bad news for everyone.


Miri Mogilevsky

Internet Culture

Posted on Dec 8, 2014   Updated on May 30, 2021, 1:09 am CDT

Last month’s groundbreaking Rolling Stone piece about sexual assault at the University of Virginia recently came under scrutiny from reporters at Slate and the Washington Post, leading Rolling Stone to retract the piece on Friday.  

Unfortunately, many are taking this to mean that “Jackie,” the college student who described her brutal gang rape in the original piece, was lying about her ordeal. Based on everything I have read about this story, however, I find that exceedingly unlikely.

One major criticism of the original Rolling Stone piece has centered on the fact that the reporter, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, did not reach out to the students Jackie accused of rape or to the fraternity where she claimed the assault happened. In the retraction piece, the editors wrote, “Because of the sensitive nature of Jackie’s story, we decided to honor her request not to contact the man who she claimed orchestrated the attack on her nor any of the men who she claimed participated in the attack for fear of retaliation against her.”

I understand this decision, and I understand how difficult it must’ve been for Erdely to try to keep Jackie comfortable enough to speak publicly about such a traumatic experience. But this goes against journalistic ethics and leaves the journalist, the publication, the readers, and the subject of the pieceJackie—vulnerable. Since Jackie was already going on the record with her accusation, refusing to try to interview the men she accused would not have helped prevent retribution against her. Unfortunately, that is a risk any time a rape survivor goes publicin fact, any time anyone publicly accuses anybody of anything.

Reporting the story ethically and rigorously doesn’t have to mean disbelieving Jackie or treating her insensitively. There’s a difference between a reporter who says, “I’m going to interview whoever I want regardless of what you want” and a reporter who says, “I understand your concerns, but in order for this story to be as powerful as we want it to be, I need to reach out to the people you’re accusing.” If Jackie refused to speak given these terms, perhaps this was not the right time to try to write this piece. As Audrey White writes at Autostraddle:

Erdely’s job as a reporter required she create a bulletproof story to protect Jackie, avoid libel against the alleged assailants, and achieve her ostensible goal of revealing a culture at UVA and in Greek life that promotes and protects sexual assault. … If respecting Jackie’s wishes meant the reporter couldn’t contact anyone else related to the assault, even to confirm basic details like a person’s membership in the frat or the date of an event, she should have found a different source or approached the narrative from a different angle. As it stands, she put the integrity of her story and of Jackie’s search for resolution at risk.

Indeed, it’s now unclear how willing Jackie was to be a part of this story at all. The Washington Post reports: “Overwhelmed by sitting through interviews with the writer, Jackie said she asked Erdely to be taken out of the article. She said Erdely refused, and Jackie was told that the article would go forward regardless.”

While Jackie doesn’t specify exactly how or why she was overwhelmed by this process, the fact that there appear to be “inconsistencies” in her recollection of her gang rape gives a possible clue.

When people like journalists and the police interview rape survivors (and other types of trauma survivors), they often do so without a good understanding of how trauma affects the brain and impacts memories. They press for specific details that survivors may not remember because of the trauma: “When did it happen? What date? What time? Where? Which fraternity? How many men? What were their names?”

Questioning survivors in this way leaves them vulnerable to unintentionally misremembering things. Illustrating this point, Amanda Taub writes at Vox about her experience as a lawyer who worked with refugees and trauma victims and notes that the sorts of memory errors that Jackie demonstrated are common in survivors and do not indicate that they are lying about the trauma. She writes, “The problem, I came to realize, was not that people were making up stories, but that the details that seemed important to me were not what mattered to them.”

Research corroborates this anecdotal evidence that trauma survivors’ memories can be impacted by PTSD (which Jackie was diagnosed with), and researchers recommend that those interviewing survivors use open-ended questions that allow survivors to recall memories at their own pace and in whichever order they can.

While we do not know how Erdely interviewed Jackie, the research clearly shows that rape survivors may have imperfect recollection of details like names and dates. This does not mean the rape never happened. In fact, it is good evidence that it did happenand was traumatic for the survivor.

Besides the fact that Jackie may have misremembered the name of the fraternity, the date of the rape, and a few other details, Rolling Stone’s decision to retract the piece is based on the fact that the (possibly misidentified) fraternity has released a statement claiming that they have “no knowledge” of any such gang rape occurring at their house, “did not have a date function or social event” that weekend, and does not include ritualized sexual assault as part of its pledging process. Sam Biddle dissects this statement at Gawker, noting that the carefully worded statement does not actually refute most of the claims it’s intended to refute.

Leaving room for the possibility that Jackie did misidentify the fraternitywhich, again, does not mean she was not gang rapedyou would hardly expect the fraternity to respond to the piece with “Yup, we did it.” Their statement is exactly the sort of comment that could have been included in the original piece had Erdely followed protocol and reached out to the fraternity. Comments like these appear in articles about crimes or unethical acts all the time: “So-and-so denies any knowledge of this event.” It is important to include them for the sake of transparency and letting the other “side” tell their story, but they do not prove that the survivor is lying.

Unsurprisingly, however, people seem more willing to believe that a woman would lie to a reporter from a major publication about being gang-raped than that someone would lie and say they didn’t do a very bad thing they are accused of doing. On Twitter, Sady Doyle explained how illogical this theory is:

As others have pointed out, the way this story was reported and subsequently retracted is a disaster not only for Jackie but for rape survivors everywhere. What Rolling Stone could have turned into a helpful and vital discussion about the neuroscience of trauma and the importance of consistent, rigorous reporting practices turned into yet another example of the many ways we as a society let rape survivors down.

Although the retraction noted that Rolling Stone was “trying to be sensitive to the unfair shame and humiliation many women feel after a sexual assault,” they also noted that their “trust in [Jackie] was misplaced.” (This latter phrase appears to have since been removed from the retraction statement.) Nowhere in the retraction did Rolling Stone even allow for the possibility that trauma caused Jackie to misremember certain details or remind readers that false rape accusations are very rare.

In fact, the consequences for Jackie will not stop at the fact that her story will probably be used as “proof” that women lie about rape for years to come. Thanks to conservative writer Charles Johnson, Jackie has been doxed:

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In the wake of Gamergate, I hope I don’t need to explain just how dangerous this is for Jackie.

Nobody has won in this situation. Not Jackie, not Rolling Stone, not anti-rape advocates, and certainly not other survivors themselves. With more careful reportingor at least a more careful retractionmuch of this fallout could’ve been avoided. An understanding of how trauma and memory work would have helped shed light on the “inconsistencies” in Jackie’s story; without that, she has been paintedlike so many survivors areas a liar.

Survivors coming out and speaking out safely is an imperative piece of the ongoing fight to reduce rape’s horrifying frequency and create a culture in which consent and justice are considered more important than a fraternity’s reputation. Now it will be even more difficult for them to do so.

Photo via small realm/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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*First Published: Dec 8, 2014, 12:30 pm CST