Trigger warning: The story contains descriptions of sexual violence and its aftermath.
The Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism recently completed its review of the writing of Rolling Stone's "A Rape on Campus." The magazine retracted the story and the fraternity Phi Kappa Psi plans legal action. The media blasted the reporting and predicted survivors will avoid reporting rapes. The fraternity and sorority political action committee even plans to lobby to undermine the civil rights of rape victims.
The institutional and media response belies important realities: an environment of energized activism, the context of the reporting errors, a fraternity with a problematic past, truly harmful media failures, and a need to make colleges safer.
Energy -- First, while the media is talking about how this will quell the movement for survivor justice, they are living through the biggest Sexual Assault Awareness Month in history. Just miles from media headquarters, colleges are brimming with the activism of walks, awareness building, and screenings of "The Hunting Ground."
What's driving them? Something not covered enough in our media: a desire to fulfill their civil rights. While we champion the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery march as a civil rights turning point, we question a movement based on granting similar personal liberties to women. Title IX's scope includes collegiate responsibilities, which complement those of law enforcement, to keep students safe. Author and chief Senate sponsor Birch Bayh described it as an "important first step" to give women "something that is rightfully theirs -- an equal chance to attend the schools of their choice, to develop the skills they want, and to apply those skills with the knowledge that they will have a fair chance to secure the jobs of their choice with equal pay for equal work."
The Story -- Magazine staff worked six months on the story, with Sabrina Erdely interviewing "Jackie" eight times and fact checkers speaking with her for four hours. The periodical also reached out to the university and students. It turns out the fraternity did not have a party that night and the information about the organizer of her rape was inaccurate (although friends believe she was sexually assaulted by multiple men.) The Columbia Journalism School's review found that the major error was the heavy reliance on her narrative. Certainly "Jackie" was deceptive to Rolling Stone about the identities of her date for the night and her friends. But the magazine should have insisted on speaking to her friends, seriously examined the pseudonym use, and clearly reported sources.
Rolling Stone's failure comes after it diversified from contemporary music stories to excellent political reporting. The magazine has provided the best analysis of the financial crash through Matt Taibbi's vivid columns, and outstanding coverage of climate change science and the "War on Terror". (In fact, its comprehensive, fact-based reporting often highlights mainstream media weaknesses).
So how could Rolling Stone miss this story? The report points out Erdely interpreted "Jackie's" inaccessibility for two weeks as "consistent with a victim of trauma." But even beyond the stress of an interviews, Rolling Stone was reporting in a society where rape survivors are treated in a way believable only of a highly backwards, sexist society. Women are viciously taunted, threatened, harassed, and discredited after their rapes become public, and even take their own lives. Surely the magazine -- who earlier published an article on high school girls' suicides after rapes -- was acutely aware of the social condemnation, or worse, that might face a student survivor on campus. It was likely one more important factor in their misguided efforts to protect her privacy and sanity.
Importantly, the magazine's errors were neither malicious nor opportunistic. They were not fabrications like those in stories by The New Republic reporter Stephen Glass, The New York Times' Jayson Blair, or the Washington Post's Janet Cooke (for which the paper returned the Pulitzer).
Finally, why go for Erdely called an "emblematic" story, or what Charles Blow calls a "catalyst case?" Because the complexity and resource intensity of long form journalism often prompts media to find a standout case with potential to galvanize action, particularly on issues of persistent social injustice. Unfortunately in the context of the sexual assaults at Steubenville, of Retheah Parsons, at Vanderbilt, at Phi Kappa Psi at UVA (not to mention the recent rape on a Panama City beach), "Jackie's" case looks all too normal.
The fraternity and its past -- Phi Kappa Psi plans legal action, for which it has received surprisingly sympathetic media coverage. But while the Rolling Stone story garnered high visibility upon publication, so too did its effective withdrawal only two weeks later. Little known, though, is that UVA student Liz Seccuro was drugged and gang raped at that same fraternity , something that apparently brought no consequences for UVA or the frat. Additionally Phi Kappa Psi at Brown University has been stripped of university recognition by the university for 2 years for an unregistered party, one in which two girls were allegedly given the date rape drug, although tests were inconclusive. Hundreds of students protested after the university ended the investigation of an involved student whose father is a trustee and donor.
Mainstream media -- The mainstream media have excoriated the publication for its reporting and retention of Erdely. A Washington Post article said "the collateral damage both to journalism and to women can't be overstated."
There have been actual journalism failures with immense human costs for which few pay a price:
Iraq War -- The mainstream media supported claims Iraq had chemical weapons and urged the nation to go to war. About 1000 false or misleading statements were made by administration officials. Many that were patently false or contradicted by international experts received major visibility in America, ginning up support for the invasion. The New York Times' Judith Miller provided false information on "weapons of mass destruction", while Tom Friedman endorsed the war as did the Washington Post's editorial board.
In the aftermath of the invasion, over four million people fled their homes and more than one million were killed (three percent of its population.) Is the media now championing legal recourse for Iraqi citizens and families of slain American soldiers? Did they take proportionate measures to reform their newsrooms?