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Two years after the publication of a factually inaccurate—and now discredited—article about a gang rape at UVA, Rolling Stone is in court fighting defamation charges. Will the continued fallout from the piece keep survivors from coming forward?
In November of 2014, Rolling Stone published an article that would fundamentally alter the conservation around campus rape—though not in the way the publication was intending. The now-infamous piece was titled "A Rape On Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA." As the name suggests, it was about the problem of campus sexual assault and the institutional response of administrators at the University of Virginia. Specifically, though, it was about a single victim's story, someone the article's author, Sabrina Erdely, referred to pseudonymously as "Jackie."
In the piece, Erdely wrote that Jackie said in September of 2012, during her freshman year, she had been gang-raped at a fraternity party. The account was graphic, shocking in its details. Erdely wrote that UVA administrators, especially Dean Nicole Eramo, were indifferent to Jackie's report of violence and that this was typical of the university's response to such reports, a charge UVA has vociferously denied. Now, after nearly two years and a complete retraction of the article, Rolling Stone is in court defending itself against claims that "A Rape on Campus" defamed Dean Eramo.
The piece hit at a particular time when people were primed to receive it. Over the past few years, student activists have pushed the problem of campus sexual assault to the fore, taking their complaints not only to the Department of Education and the White House, but also to the media and the public at large. In order to force overdue change, survivors of sexual violence had been sharing their stories and putting human faces on the victims of this violence.
The Rolling Stone article seemed to do this particularly well: Jackie's story was heartbreaking and shockingly brutal, and the responses of her friends and school administrators, as the article described them, were senselessly callous. It went viral almost immediately. While it was online, it garnered about 2.7 million page views, becoming Rolling Stone's most-read feature that was not about a celebrity. The president of UVA temporarily suspended all fraternities. The Charlottesville police began to investigate the crime reported in the piece. Social media exploded in anger, but also in questions about the story at the center and the woman who told it.
Within three days, questions began to emerge from other journalists, primarily around Jackie, since the piece was based so heavily on this single unnamed source. Once the Washington Post got in the game of investigating Erdely's investigation, everything unraveled by mid-December. On December 22, Rolling Stone asked the Columbia Journalism School to do an independent review of their sourcing, reporting, fact-checking, and editing of the piece. In March, the police concluded their own investigation and told the media, "We're not able to conclude to any substantive degree that an incident occurred at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house or any other fraternity house." The CJR report was released in early April of 2015, a 12,000-word damning critique of journalistic failure on multiple levels. In response, Rolling Stone fully retracted the story, replacing it with the CJR report.
I believe that I was assaulted but some of the details of my assault—I have PTSD and some of them are foggy.
Even after the retraction, Rolling Stone went on to face three separate libel cases, one of which has since been dismissed. The remaining two—one filed by the frat where Jackie said the attack took place, the other filed by a dean named in the article went to trial this week—seek millions of dollars in damages. The former dean, Nicole Eramo, says that she was painted as the "chief villain" in Erdely's account. According to the Columbia Journalism Review, these suits, which are currently ongoing, "seem poised to go down in the annals of defamation law."
Jackie herself has paid a steep price for being an unreliable source. She was doxxed in December 2014, and there are still sites dedicated to publishing her personal information. The police chief in Charlottesville made sure to say in his press conference that despite a lack of evidence that the story told in Rolling Stone happened, "that doesn't mean something terrible didn't happen to Jackie ... we're just not able to gather sufficient facts to determine what that is." The CJR, likewise, stated that "the retraction [of Rolling Stone's story] cannot be understood as evidence about what actually happened to Jackie on the night of Sept. 28, 2012." Jackie herself spoke about this when she was recently deposed for Eramo's suit. "I believe that I was assaulted but some of the details of my assault—I have PTSD and some of them are foggy," she told Eramo's lawyers.
Regardless, for those who vociferously deny the extent of the campus rape epidemic, the UVA story has become a powerful symbol: It has entered the pantheon of examples of Women Who Lie About Being Raped, most famously represented by the 2006 Duke Lacrosse case. Neither Duke nor UVA are as simple as that (and neither alter the statistic that only two to eight percent of rape accusations are false), but if you google them together, you will find them most often coupled under that umbrella. And since we are a decade on from Duke and it still is mentioned often and repeatedly whenever someone wants to cast doubt on the veracity of a report of sexual assault, it's fair to wonder what the long-term impact of Rolling Stone's failure will be.
Tyler Kingkade, a reporter who has covered campus sexual assault from many angles, says, "I think people probably think [Rolling Stone] changed everything" in regards to how people report on the issue. Kingkade says that in the immediate aftermath of the article falling apart, tips for campus sexual assault stories did dry up, and sources were reluctant to come forward.
Yet even that has faded. Annie Clark, the executive director and co-founder of End Rape on Campus and co-editor of a new book, We Believe You, which is a collection of 36 stories of campus sexual assault, says the fallout from Rolling Stone "absolutely had an effect on survivors coming forward." But now, in the summer of 2016, she says while it has helped feed the lie that a false rape accusation is as likely a survivor telling the truth about what happened to them (or, at the least, the media's desire to present these possibilities as equal), she adds, "I don't know if [the impact of Rolling Stone was] as big as a lot of people say it was."
I think people probably think [Rolling Stone] changed everything.
We now live and work in a different era than when Duke Lacrosse happened. Today, survivors can take to social media directly and often do. #SurvivorPrivilege, #TheEmptyChair, #WhenIWas, and #IBelieveSurvivors are all viral hashtags from the last two years that were immediate responses to a high-profile sexual assault case or a major figure minimizing the impact of sexual violence. At the same time, the amount of reporting on sexual assault has not slowed down. Between Rolling Stone and today, reporters have continued to cover the ubiquity of sexual violence in our society: the Bill Cosby case, the Stanford rape case, rape at music festivals, everything around the documentary The Hunting Ground, rape in prison, rape in national parks, rape in the peace corps, rape by UN peacekeepers, the fallout at Baylor, Kesha's case against Dr. Luke, longstanding allegations against Bill Clinton, failures by police in investigating sexual assault, a case of a high-profile music publicist, the rape of undocumented women working the night shift, and on and on.
Katie Baker is a national reporter with Buzzfeed News who has covered sexual violence for more than five years and who published the Stanford rape victim's statement earlier this year. She says that since Rolling Stone, she's noticed an uptick of "reporters who seem to think it's their job to poke holes in any story about sexual assault that comes out."
Jackie herself faced incredible scrutiny, with conservative hack Charles C. Johnson offering money to anyone who could locate her real name, picture, and any information he felt showed that she was a liar. Other victims of sexual assault received similar treatment in the press as well: In February of 2015, the Daily Beast published private Facebook messages written by Emma Sulkowicz, an activist who famously carried her mattress around campus in protest of the way university handled her report of violence, in order to pick apart her story. Slate columnist Emily Yoffe spent so many words trying to debunk the survivors' accounts in the documentary The Hunting Ground that writing about Yoffe's debunking was its own category for a while.
Baker says this kind of reporting "understandably scares some rape survivors, journalists, and editors." She adds, though, "It shouldn't. Journalists should just make sure their stories are airtight and fair to both the accused and the accuser."
Stop looking for a 'perfect' victim or a story that is newsworthy because of its shock value.
Kingkade echoes this. "In a way, it's beneficial," he says, "because I can say, 'The last thing I want to have happen to you is for us to get something wrong and then people turn around and attack you. For example, I want to do everything I can to make sure that we never come close to publishing something like the Rolling Stone UVA piece.'"
Baker calls UVA "an example of worst practices" for reporting on sexual violence, one other journalists can use in the way Kingkade does. Baker has found that her rigorous method of verifying stories goes over well. "My sources are often grateful to me for being both sympathetic yet hyper-aware of the risks people take when speaking about their sexual assault."
Clark, Kingkade, and Baker all stress the importance of nuance and sensitivity in reporting on sexual assault. Reporters must resist looking for a particular kind of story or a particular kind of victim. This is, perhaps, part of the problem with what happened at Rolling Stone. In the very first paragraph of the CJR report, the authors of the report write that Erdely found Jackie when she was "searching for a single, emblematic college rape case."
"The way the media sensationalizes these cases and makes them look, it's harmful," Clark says. "Stop looking for a 'perfect' victim or a story that is newsworthy because of its shock value."
"I always try to elevate nuance instead of dismiss it," Baker says. "I think it is possible to acknowledge that things are not black and white without dismissing the stuff that's gray." Kingkade, for his part, looks for stories that can be fact-checked. "My stories have always focused on what an institution did, or failed to do, which is something you can factually demonstrate," he says.
Rolling Stone's piece, could have done this and tried to in part. "There were truths in the Rolling Stone UVA piece—for instance, that they don't expel students for sexual assault, or how a dean downplayed their federal compliance review—but those were lost when Jackie's story unraveled," Kingkade says. "That was a disservice for everyone."
The verdict of the impact of Rolling Stone's UVA story and its long-term effects are yet unknown. It might still be part of the cultural lexicon in eight years, a taunt thrown at survivors who come forward. Certainly it will remain as a cautionary tales for reporters who want to write about sexual violence. Still, Baker says, despite these warnings, "reporters shouldn't be scared of reporting on sexual assault, post-UVA. Sensitivity is key, but it's not harder to report on sexual assault than it is to report on other forms of serious trauma. In fact, it's not only possible but crucial to keep reporting on sexual violence."
"You can fact-check while also being empathetic," she affirms.
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