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What UVA journalists take away from Rolling Stone apology (+video)

When Rolling Stone apologized for its coverage of sexual assault at the University of Virginia, student journalists have had to be on the story as they grapple with tough media ethics questions.

In the week before finals, University of Virginia campus reporters got an unexpected, front-row lesson in Journalism 101.

Friday’s news that the Washington Post reported factual inconsistencies in Rolling Stone’s reporting of a gang rape at the 195-year-old institution is further roiling a campus still reeling from the magazine’s initial article last month.

That piece brought the story of Jackie, a UVA freshman who said seven men had raped her in the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house in 2012, to the national spotlight. Following its publication, the university announced an independent review of sexual misconduct policies and suspended fraternities, among other measures. The case has consumed faculty and students since the article’s Nov. 19 publication.

But UVA campus journalists have had to grapple with the issue in a distinct way from their classmates – wrestling with conveying truths about sexual assault on campus, reporting on the veracity of this particular case, responding to good and bad journalism by national news outlets, all the while absorbing the strong views coming from parents, friends, and classmates.

The Rolling Stone's Friday statement reads, “In the face of new information, there now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie's account, and we have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced.” (Will Dana, the piece’s editor, later wrote that the failure was on the magazine, not Jackie, in a series of tweets later on Friday.) Professional journalists have criticized Rolling Stone’s decision not to contact the alleged attackers. 

Rebecca Lim, the editor-in-chief of the UVA student news outlet, The Cavalier Daily, said they were also in the process of contacting sources and independently verifying pieces of the original Rolling Stone's story when the Washington Post's story came out Friday. Ms. Lim says that The Cavalier had tried to connect with Jackie, and they were looking into other things that might have been mischaracterized. 

Was Jackie lying to The Rolling Stone or simply confused about the details of the sexual assault? On Friday, The Cavalier published a story that quoted a Michigan State University Psychology Prof. Rebecca Campbell on the impact of trauma on memory.

For survivors of sexual assault in particular, Campbell said the chronological order of events, and specific details are often unclear in their memories.

"When a victim's recounting a story of sexual assault, we would at a minimum expect some jumping back and forth," she said. "It's not a simple process to describe, but disordered presentation, fuzziness of some details, and some things — particularly very specific, what we call 'context cues,' could be inaccurate. Specific time, specific dates, specific physical scene details — those would all be very vulnerable to not getting encoded correctly in memory, particularly if alcohol and drugs were on board in the victim's system."

But in comments on the article, many Cavalier readers criticized this perspective. 

Was Jackie traumatized every time she met "Drew" when they were life guards together prior to the evening in question? Would the psychological trauma have impacted here ability to accurately identify even as much as the building that she entered? That certainly doesn't seem like a minor or specific detail, and I don't think that correctly identifying the building that you entered or the individual who brought you there is too much to ask.

The Rolling Stone's apology, says Lim, serves as a reminder of why journalists must follow best practices. "It didn't teach me anything new necessarily, but it reminded me that this is why we do journalism the way that we do it," she says.

The Cavalier Daily immediately jumped on the latest news on Friday — "we found out the way everyone else did," Ms. Lim says — and it has kept a timeline of fallout from the Rolling Stone article.

An immediate challenge for the Cavalier Daily, Lim says, is that reporters are now competing against national outlets.

Besides the Washington Post, other national publications have now sent journalists to the university. This coverage has come alongside social media campaigns — including a #IStandWithJackie trend — through which thousands of users are sharing perspectives on both the apology and the case itself.

At the campus daily, reporters try to keep their key audience in mind, students, as they develop coverage, Lim says.

When Lauren Horne, a first-year student who is a columnist for the campus’s Cavalier Daily, saw Rolling Stone’s apology, she says she first focused on the quality of reporting and the way the magazine apologized, not the validity of Jackie’s allegations.

“If there’s anything wrong with Jackie’s story, fine. Sexual assault is still an issue, and it’s still an issue here,” Ms. Horne says. “But they completely took the blame off of themselves, and put it on Jackie. It says in the statement that our trust in her was misplaced, but you didn’t do your job.”

Both Horne and Lim say that students around campus have discussed various angles into the issue, and Lim says future coverage and columns will try to include different campus perspectives.

Many students, Horne says, said that Jackie fabricated the story. Others criticized the lack of fact-checking by Rolling Stone and the retraction itself.

“This has been an incredibly difficult semester to be a UVA student,” Horne says. “We’re walking on eggshells as a school and we have been since September," referring to the kidnapping and death of UVA student Hannah Graham.

Lim agrees, noting that one reason coverage is so meaningful is that the sexual assault story directly affects its reporters. "We're reporting on the community that we're very much a part of," she says. "If you take the reporter hat off, at the end of the day you're a student at the university." 

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