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Rolling Stone UVA fraternity rape story tests journalistic practices (+video)

Rolling Stone is backing away from its story “A Rape on Campus” because of “discrepancies” in the alleged victim’s account. This has led to criticism – and journalistic soul-searching – about a major story that apparently lacked thorough reporting.

In the wake of the Rolling Stone story about a gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity, two major US institutions are going through deep self-examination: Schools of higher education and the media.

The original story was explosive. A UVA freshman identified only as “Jackie” said she had been lured upstairs to a dark room at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house, where a group of seven young men led by Jackie’s date (identified as “a man we’ll call ‘Drew’”) beat and raped her over a three-hour period.

While the fraternity was named in the article, the alleged attackers were not. Nor – significantly to many journalism professionals – was there any real attempt to contact them for an opportunity to respond to Jackie’s account of what happened to her that night.

As Allison Benedikt and Hanna Rosin write in Slate, the Rolling Stone piece “A Rape on Campus” is a huge story in all senses of the word – a 9,000-word article that “helped kick off a broad national conversation about fraternity culture, rape on campus, and whether our colleges and universities are equipped to adjudicate alleged sex crimes.”

“But what the piece is missing is one small thing: that single, standard sentence explaining that the alleged perpetrators of the crime deny it, or don’t deny it, or even that they could not be reached for comment,” Benedikt and Rosin continue. “It’s often a boring sentence, one that comes off as boilerplate to readers, but it’s absolutely necessary, because it tells readers you tried your best to get the other side of the story. You notice when it isn’t there.”

Many others – including those who have been burned by fabricating journalists – have noticed potential weaknesses in the story as well, including the broader tendency to accept as truthful (and perhaps emphasize) stories, assertions, or points of view with which the writer personally agrees.

“One must be most critical about stories that play into existing biases,” writes Richard Bradley (who, as an editor, was duped by Stephen Glass). “And this story nourishes a lot of them: biases against fraternities, against men, against the South; biases about the naiveté of young women, especially Southern women; pre-existing beliefs about the prevalence—indeed, the existence—of rape culture; extant suspicions about the hostility of university bureaucracies to sexual assault complaints that can produce unflattering publicity.”

While many critics express incredulity, very few allege that Jackie or Rolling Stone writer Sabrina Rubin Erdely made up the story. 

“One thing we know is that Rolling Stone did a shoddy job reporting, editing, and fact-checking the story and an even shoddier job apologizing,” writes Slate’s Hanna Rosin in her “DoubleEx” column featuring women writers. “In his statement, managing editor Will Dana says the magazine relied on Jackie’s credibility and now realizes its trust was ‘misplaced.’ (In a later series of tweets on Friday, Dana wrote that the failure ‘is on us – not on her.’) But any story, much less one as damning and explosive as this one, should never rely on just the credibility of one source.”

Some commentators say such criticism is misplaced, that those linked to such behavior don’t usually get the opportunity to tell their side of the story. But the circumstances in this instance are different, others contend.

“If they were being cited in the story for mere drunkenness, boorish frat-boy behavior or similar collegiate misdemeanors, then there’d be no harm in failing to secure their input,” writes Eric Wemple, who blogs about the media for the Washington Post. “The charge in this piece, however, is gang rape, and so requires every possible step to reach out and interview them, including e-mails, phone calls, certified letters, FedEx letters, UPS letters and, if all of that fails, a knock on the door. No effort short of all that qualifies as journalism.”

That gets to what constitutes journalism: thoroughly reported pieces aiming for completeness if not what most readers would consider balance and fairness, or a story – there’s a reason why published or broadcast items are called “stories” – that profiles an individual whose experience is compelling if not shocking.

Beyond that, if indeed there is a “boy who cried wolf” aspect to Ms. Erdely’s Rolling Stone story, then it may have done a disservice to women still facing the potential of sexual assault at a time when society is wrestling with the issue in schools such as UVA, the US military, and sports.

“If Jackie’s story proves to be false (or a dramatic overstatement of a still terrifying trauma), the damage done to those fighting the scourge of campus sexual violence will be incalculable,” warns Michael Moynihan, cultural news editor at The Daily Beast. “Because if accusations are never met with circumspection, prepare to see an increase in those who believe that all accusations are untrustworthy.”

There’s a broader argument – although it’s a minority view – being made as well: that sex crimes should be treated like other crimes in the naming of victims.

“Rolling Stone embarrassed itself and the whole journalism profession for hanging a sensational story of fraternity gang rape at University of Virginia on a source it now doesn’t trust, and probably never should have,” writes Adrianne Flynn, a faculty member and career development director for the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, in American Journalism Review.

“Had Rolling Stone treated this astounding allegation of a horrific and terrifying incident of gang rape like a crime, instead of swaddling it in the misplaced bubble wrap accorded sexual assault victims, I contend [editor Dana’s letter to readers] would likely never have been written,” Ms. Flynn writes, referring to the “stigma” and “patina of shame” associated with sex. “Those pros at Rolling Stone would have just done their professional thing – call the victim, call the cops, call the suspects, call the attorneys, call the forensic people … and print all the sordid sides of the tale.”

In a statement Friday, UVA President Teresa Sullivan said that while the university is aware of the doubts now being raised about Jackie’s story, “The University remains first and foremost concerned with the care and support of our students and, especially, any survivor of sexual assault. Our students, their safety, and their wellbeing, remain our top priority.”

UVA’s reputation is that of a party school where infractions such as test cheating are punished but allegations of sexual assault are not. That may be changing.

“Over the past two weeks, our community has been more focused than ever on one of the most difficult and critical issues facing higher education today: sexual violence on college campuses. Today’s news must not alter this focus,” said Ms. Sullivan. “We will continue to take a hard look at our practices, policies and procedures, and continue to dedicate ourselves to becoming a model institution in our educational programming, in the character of our student culture, and in our care for those who are victims.”

Meanwhile, five college students accused of gang-raping a female fellow student in a New Jersey dorm room pleaded not guilty on Tuesday, Reuters reports.
 
 The five men blocked a dorm room doorway at William Paterson University in Wayne, and restrained and demanded sex from the woman on Nov. 25, when the campus had largely emptied out for the Thanksgiving break, according to the criminal complaint.
 
 Four men, all 18, were charged with conspiring to sexually assault the victim. Another student, also 18, joined the attack while it was in progress and is charged with aggravated sexual assault, prosecutors said.
 
 All the students pleaded not guilty in Passaic County Superior Court in Paterson.

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