Rolling Stone’s omission in UVA article proves problematic (Updated)

It should serve as a warning to journalists who report on rape to be extra cautious

Update, Friday, December 5: Rolling Stone has released a statement apologizing to readers after days of media scrutiny seemingly uncovered discrepancies in Jackie’s story. The magazine faced widespread criticism for failing to speak to the men she accused of rape. “We were trying to be sensitive to the unfair shame and humiliation many women feel after a sexual assualt and now regret the decision not to contact the alleged assaulters to get their account,” Managing Editor Will Dana wrote.

Original story: In the November 19 Rolling Stone article about campus rape at the University of Virginia that sparked rampant discussion about sexual violence, journalist Sabrina Rubin Erdely writes that survivors of rape often stay silent because reactions of “dismissal, downgrading and doubt is a common theme UVA rape survivors hear, including from women.”

The piece, about a UVA undergrad called Jackie, details a brutal gang-rape and the inadequate response from the administration that followed when she reported it. It led to a local police investigation, and temporary suspension of fraternity activities by university president Teresa Sullivan, who issued a call for discussion about sexual assault.

But in the past few days, various doubts have been raised about possible holes in Erdely’s reporting. Rolling Stone apparently never talked to the men accused of raping Jackie. Because of that omission, some are now questioning whether her story is true at all, and may risk supporting the very culture that Erdely argues against: one in which survivors of rape are not taken seriously.

In a blog post last week, Richard Bradley, editor in chief of Worth magazine, analyzed the details of the alleged crime, so extreme that Bradley believed it didn’t “feel right.” The crucial part of Bradley’s criticism however, addressed how the alleged perpetrators were never named, and how Erdely didn’t appear to have talked to them at all.

That same question was addressed in a Washington Post interview later that week, in which Erdely wouldn’t disclose whether she knew the names of the alleged rapists, or had contacted them, due to an agreement with Jackie. The interview did mention however, that there have been no public denials of the alleged crime so far.

The Post eventually revisited the interview Monday, and cited a Slate interview in which Erdely explains how she had reached out to the accused but didn’t talk with them directly. On that same day, stories in Reason and The New Republic cast doubt on the  story due to this lapse.

Erdely’s editor at Rolling Stone, Sean Woods, told the Post, “We did not talk to them. We could not reach them,” but, he said, “we verified their existence.” Woods told several outlets that the factchecking had been thorough and told the Post,  “I’m satisfied that these guys exist and are real. We knew who they were.”

In an email to the Post, Erdely wrote that the question was sidetracking the real story:

[T]he gang-rape scene that leads the story is the alarming account that Jackie — a person whom I found to be credible — told to me, told her friends, and importantly, what she told the UVA administration, which chose not to act on her allegations in any way — i.e., the overarching point of the article. THAT is the story: the culture that greeted her and so many other UVA women I interviewed, who came forward with allegations, only to be met with indifference.

As Erdely suggests, Jackie is far from the only source in the Rolling Stone story, which is rich in reported facts, along with quotes by experts and survivors of rape. Certainly, the main message has had a huge impact so far. But the questions that were not asked now threaten to hijack that narrative.

It may not have changed the story at all had Erdely talked to the accused men, who were not identified in the article, and who have not been charged by the police. But it’s possible that they could have provided leads worth following, or introduced an unknown angle. And it’s that element of doubt that is now changing how some understand the story. Further, the accused men, who may be recognized in their local community, deserve a chance to tell their side of the story. As Erik Wemple wrote on Tuesday, “No effort short of all that qualifies as journalism.”

As such, the whole issue should serve as a warning to other journalists who report on rape to be extra cautious in their reporting: If any questions are left partly unanswered, the story risks becoming counterproductive and ultimately supporting attitudes of skepticism and indifference. More cautious language may have saved Erdely some of the critique—as the Washington Post pointed out, she hardly uses any qualifiers in the descriptions of the rape scenes, such as “according to Jackie,” but, Erdely replied, the writing makes it clear that the story is told from one point of view.

Since the media attention has increased, Erdely seems to have stopped giving interviews. She referred CJR to Rolling Stone’s publicity director, while editor Sean Woods wrote in an email to CJR, “Sorry but I’m done talking about the piece for the moment and have been quoted elsewhere.” Both he and the PR director forwarded a Rolling Stone statement:

The story we published was one woman’s account of a sexual assault at a UVA fraternity in October 2012 – and the subsequent ordeal she experienced at the hands of University administrators in her attempts to work her way through the trauma of that evening. Through our extensive reporting and fact–checking, we found Jackie to be entirely credible and courageous and we are proud to have given her disturbing story the attention it deserves.  

Certainly, both ends of the spectrum have been represented in the media, from dismissal of the story, to trust in the reporting.

The truth may lie somewhere in the middle, or as Erdely told the Washington Post, “It’s impossible to know for certain what happened in that room, because I wasn’t in it. But I certainly believe that she described an experience that was in­cred­ibly traumatic to her.”

Lene Bech Sillesen is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow her on Twitter at @LeneBechS.