Jackie’s shocking account of gang rape at a University of Virginia frat house has been growing holes by the day. And it has put Rolling Stone – the magazine that published it without identifying the accuser, the friends she quoted or the alleged rapists – under a harsh light. It only named the fraternity, Phi Kappa Psi.
Not naming the accusers in rape cases has become a standard journalistic practice, pushed by advocates for the victims. That must end.
Failure to identify those involved, ostensibly to protect the alleged victim’s privacy, can’t help but undermine the credibility of the reporting. It also poorly serves victims by feeding the idea that being raped is a disgrace. Rape is a violent crime, a felony, and women subjected to it should feel no more shame than those who are slashed or punched in the face.
Sometimes reporters do have to shield the identity of sources, particularly in matters of national security. But letting anyone spread information under the veil of anonymity removes one of the safeguards for reliability.
Rolling Stone has published great work over the years, but for this story, it grievously compounded the error of not identifying anyone by not double-checking Jackie’s story. That Jackie asked the reporter to refrain from contacting the alleged attackers isn’t surprising. That the reporter did as she was asked is amazing. If Jackie made not verifying information a demand for her cooperation, the magazine should have taken a pass.
The details here were so grotesque that critics would inevitably question them. For example, a friend Jackie contacted after the alleged crime told The Washington Post that she seemed upset but was not bloody or beaten as the article asserted. And he said that Jackie spoke of having been forced to perform oral sex, which is different from the genital torture described in the article.
In this and other rape complaints where some claims come unraveled, the advocates often respond that “ something happened.” And something very well may have. But unless someone on the scene comes out to discuss what that was, it’s almost impossible to get at an accepted truth. There are brutal rapes, false accusations of rape and lots in between.
A man dropping a knockout pill in a woman’s drink and then sexually assaulting her has committed rape. That is clear.
But the in-between circumstances can complicate reaching such conclusions. In campus cases, the man and woman are often friends. Two students getting mutually drunk or high and not clearly communicating their level of sexual interest leaves a murkier picture.
The gray areas may help explain why some accusers ask college officials not to ruin their alleged attacker’s life with expulsion from school. A savage rapist shouldn’t even be on the streets, much less on campus.
Do some women fear retaliation by the men? They may, but that can happen anytime someone charges another with a crime.
Rolling Stone did itself no good by briefly blaming Jackie for the inaccuracies. The magazine quickly recovered its senses and put the blame on itself.
In a long note expressing regret, Rolling Stone Managing Editor Will Dana wrote, “In trying to be sensitive to the unfair shame and humiliation many women feel after a sexual assault, we made a judgment – the kind of judgment reporters and editors make every day.”
That is true, but reporters and editors should expand their sensitivities to include the reputations of those accused, not always justly. Finally, everyone – especially advocates for rape victims – should work at countering the notion that women traumatized by a violent crime need to hide in shame.