When Rolling Stone published a feature on November 19 about a gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity, it created a firestorm, leading to the suspension of fraternities on the Charlottesville, Va., campus and bringing yet more attention to the growing movement to combat sexual assault on college campuses. Now, after the Washington Post has poked numerous holes in Rolling Stone’s story and Rolling Stone has issued an apology for publishing what amounted to an uncorroborated accusation, the story threatens to become a distraction from the very real issue of college sexual assault. Rolling Stone deserves round criticism for its journalistic failings and its perpetuations of myths about sexual assault, but its mistakes must not detract from efforts to reform how universities and students address a sexual assault problem that has rightly reached the forefront of national discourse.
The most egregious of Rolling Stone’s journalistic errors was its failure to confirm the account of the victim, Jackie, with any of her accused assailants or even with her friends. As Erik Wemple points out in the Washington Post, whether these failings resulted from an ill-conceived agreement with Jackie or from incompetence on the part of the publication, they reflect very poorly on Rolling Stone and represent a lack of basic journalistic due diligence. Moreover, given the relative ease with which the Washington Post was able to uncover problems with many key details of the account presented Jackie presented, Rolling Stone should have been able to do far better in its reporting.
Just as misguided as Rolling Stone’s reporting was its attempt at an apology. In that apology’s first iteration, the magazine wrote, “we have come to the conclusion that our trust in her [Jackie] was misplaced,” a sentiment that smacks of victim blaming and deflects from the magazine’s far greater responsibility in allowing the feature’s publication. The apology on Rolling Stone’s website now says that the magazine’s errors were “on Rolling Stone, not on Jackie,” a sentiment it should have expressed from the outset.
All of these bungles underscore the extent to which Rolling Stone’s story and apology threaten to obscure many of the most pressing issues surrounding campus sexual assault. First, by choosing to publish an under-reported account and then to blame the alleged victim rather than accept responsibility for its own foul-ups, Rolling Stone has lent credibility to those who claim that false accusations in cases of rape are particularly common. As Yvonne Abraham in the Boston Globe put it, “the chorus of people who believe women routinely make these things up will grow louder.” This outcome is not only unfortunate, but also factually inaccurate; as Abraham continues, “there are no more fabricated reports of rapes than of other crimes.”
Moreover, in choosing to focus on a sensationalized gang rape, Rolling Stone implicitly ignored other, more prevalent forms of assault. More commonplace accounts of sexual assault deserve just as prominent a place in the national discourse, both for the efficacy of solutions and for ensuring that the issue is understood in all its dimensions.
Ultimately, Rolling Stone’s journalistic failings and the magazines perpetuation of myths about sexual assault must not detract from ongoing attempts to make college campuses safer for all students. Sexual assault remains far too prevalent at universities around the country, and one case of journalistic malfeasance does not make it any less necessary to confront the problem fully and effectively.
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