On November 19, Rolling Stone printed a story by Sabrina Rubin Erdely about ‘Jackie,’ a University of Virginia student who alleges she was gang-raped in 2012 at a Phi Kappa Psi fraternity party.
It’s a harrowing story that’s received its share of criticism for a key missing detail: why hadn’t Erdely attempted to contact the alleged perpetrators?
“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,” Hanna Rosin and Allison Benedikt wrote at Slate.
“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.”
And now, the story is at the eye of a massive media shitstorm.
On Dec. 5, Rolling Stone posted a note signed by managing editor Will Dana saying that “In the face of new information there now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie’s account” and that its “… trust in her was misplaced.”
The magazine was swiftly met with well-deserved criticism for throwing Jackie under the bus; over the weekend, Rolling Stone silently edited the note and removed the line heard ’round the world without indicating as much because Rolling Stone felt it hadn’t fucked up enough I guess.
(The magazine attempts to shift the blame from Jackie to its editorial team — i.e. WHERE IT BELONGS — but absent from the edit is a formal apology to Jackie.)
On the same day, Phi Kappa Psi released a statement — which was printed in the Washington Post — rebutting the story, saying, among other things, that there was no party on the night of Sept. 28, 2012, the date Jackie alleges the attack took place.
The Washington Post released its own report on the U-Va. story (and also silently deleted a claim that Jackie never met the student she named).
From the Washington Post story:
A group of Jackie’s close friends, who are advocates at U-Va. for sex-assault awareness, said they believe that something traumatic happened to her, but they also have come to doubt her account. A student who came to Jackie’s aid the night of the alleged attack said in an interview late Friday night that she did not appear physically injured at the time but was visibly shaken and told him and two other friends that she had been at a fraternity party and had been forced to have oral sex with a group of men. They offered to get her help and she said she just wanted to return to her dorm, said the student, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. The friends said that details of the attack have changed over time and that they have not been able to verify key points in recent days. For example, an alleged attacker that Jackie identified to them for the first time this week — a junior in 2012 who worked with her as a university lifeguard — was actually the name of a student who belongs to a different fraternity, and no one by that name has been a member of Phi Kappa Psi.
Meanwhile, Jackie, who has been interviewed several times by the Post in the past few weeks, stands by her story. Jackie also told the Post that she wanted to be taken out of Erdely’s article and that Erdely refused.
This situation is so very shitty on so many levels.
Rolling Stone claims it was trying to protect Jackie by honouring “her request not to contact the man who she claimed orchestrated the attack on her nor any of the men who she claimed participated in the attack for fear of retaliation against her.”
But by not doing due diligence in checking out her story — and then issuing an awful bullshit statement that all but ensured everyone’s take-home message would be that Jackie lied — the magazine did exactly the opposite. And now, to quote Jessica Valenti, “Jackie is now another woman who is not believed.”
Tell me, again, Rolling Stone: exactly whose trust was misplaced?
Amanda Taub, a former lawyer who worked with refugees and trauma victims before becoming a journalist, writes in Vox that her first-hand experience taught her that traumatized victims don’t always tell an accurate story, which meant she had a responsibility to protect the people she interviewed “by checking the details of their stories before exposing them to the scrutiny of the public or an immigration court. Presenting their stories without first doing that kind of due diligence would not have been a way to protect them from harm. Rather, it would have left them with a record that undermined their credibility, and no means to recover from it.”
When sexual assault victims go to the media or agree to share their story with the media — an incredibly brave act either way — they absolutely need to be protected from public scrutiny by those who have been trusted to tell their story.
After all, we live in a society that expects a lot from victims. They are expected to deliver detailed, iron-clad accounts of traumatic events. They are expected to ‘act like victims.’
To be sure, rape culture has created ideals for victims. An ideal victim doesn’t engage in ‘risky behaviour.’ An ideal victim goes to the police. An ideal victim doesn’t wait decades to come forward. An ideal victim has a perfect bill of mental health. An ideal victim isn’t wearing a short skirt. An ideal victim blows a whistle and screams no. An ideal victim doesn’t abuse sustances. An ideal victim is sober at the time of the attack. And so on and so on and so on.
And when victims don’t live up to those ideals — and, SPOILER, few do — and those charged with telling their stories mishandle them, their stories are scrutinized and ripped apart.
Because, as we’ve seen over the last few days, it’s still much easier for many people to believe a fraternity with a reputation to recover or that a man might be falsely accused than it is to believe Jackie. Even though she has a lot to lose by coming forward. Even though the percentage of false allegations is very low.
The repercussions of this massive journalistic fuck-up are grave.
As Andrea Grimes, senior political reporter at RH Reality Check, poignantly tweeted Friday, “What you hear today is the sound of thousands of survivors deciding anew that it’s not safe to tell their stories.”
We need to do better by survivors. Because until we make it safer for them to tell their stories, the narrative surrounding sexual assault will never change.