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Lane: Rolling Stone's "Jackie" has hindered progress on sexual assault

BY JOE LANE | APRIL 09, 2015 5:00 AM

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On Sunday, the Columbia Journalism Review published an investigation surrounding the failures in the reporting of Rolling Stone’s“A Rape on Campus” story.

“A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA,” by Sabrina Erdely, was the most-viewed article not about a celebrity ever posted on Rolling Stone,with more than 2.7 million views.

The Review’s investigation focused, almost entirely, on the lack of proper, fact-confirming, journalistic investigation by Erdely. After the story was published, fact checking was completed by those affected, and the previously unchecked story was largely discredited.

First and foremost, the Review’s investigation rightfully condemns Erdely and the entire Rolling Stone staff responsible for the story. Far too briefly, the investigation also touches on the failure of the student, referred to in the article as “Jackie.”

The journalistic failure of Erdely is beyond inexcusable. Her inability to pursue even the most basic of accounts from other sources brings shame to journalism. Yet the less-frequently addressed aspect of the story is what scares me —Jackie’s willingness to, apparently, manufacture such a story.

Before continuing, it is of critical importance that I express that every statement made about the investigation and the UVA student referred to as Jackie comes with a caveat: Sexual assault of any kind is one of the most — if not the most — unforgivable and horrifying acts imaginable. In everything that I say it is of paramount importance to remember that I could not have stronger feelings of disgust toward perpetrators of sexual assault.

Now to Jackie.

Sexual-assault incidence appears to be a big issue on campuses around the country. This, in fact, was the reason for the story in the first place — the magazine wanted to shed light on the culture of sexual assault that can be found on campuses. However, in an effort to help survivors, the un-fact checked story might have further alienated these individuals.

According to the Charlottesville, Virginia, police, three of Jackie’s friends with whom she claimed to discuss the night of the incident, the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity at which the event purportedly occurred, the pool at which the alleged assaulter worked, and the university itself, several parts of Jackie’s story were not true — right down the existence of her attacker.

So yes, Erdely should have done more investigating before sending the story to her editor. And yes, the fact checkers, editors, and managing editors should have called out some of the potential inconsistencies in Erdely’s story.

But the fact remains, this story never should have reached Erdely in the first place. That a young woman felt confident destroying the reputations of several individuals and institutions for unknown motives is shocking.

The Review’s investigation cites psychological phenomena such as confirmation bias and a desire not to further traumatize a rape victim by being over demanding in interviews as possible reasons for Erderly’s willingness to accede to Jackie’s requests not to reach out to the alleged perpetrator or other possible sources.

As the story progressed, however, it became clear that Jackie didn’t want Ederly to avoid reaching out for fear of retaliation but for fear that she might be discovered as a fraud.

What Jackie’s intentions with creating this story are remains unclear. But one thing is certain — the story of “A Rape on Campus” not only did not help shed light on sexual assault, it hindered the strides that have been made. The immensely unfortunate stigma that goes along with reporting sexual assault of potentially being called a liar can prevent victims from speaking up. Jackie’s actions are as inexcusable as those of the Rolling Stone, for they, too, have contributed to this stigma.


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