Earlier this week, Rolling Stone retracted its story from November 2014, “A Rape on Campus,” about a University of Virginia student who was allegedly gang-raped by seven members of a fraternity. While the story left many readers upset and disturbed about a horrific reality that plagues campuses all over the country, the story turned out to also have factual discrepancies that resulted in scrutiny and harsh criticism of everyone involved — including the survivor “Jackie.” An investigation showed the failure of Rolling Stone’s reporting and fact-checking. Irresponsible cannot even begin to describe what the magazine did and shame cannot even begin to describe what the magazine should feel.
Journalistic integrity and ethical decision is the hallmark of legitimacy for every published article. Reporting on sexual assault, in particular, requires an astronomical sense of care, professionalism and wisdom. All these are traits Rolling Stone writer Sabrina Erdely should have displayed before she decided to write and publish an unverified version of a survivor’s terrifying trauma. Instead, she became part of the problem of mishandling the widely misunderstood act of violence that leaves one out of three of its survivors with post-traumatic stress disorder, thoughts of suicide and depression. Sexual assault becomes even more complex because of a long-established understanding that it affects the memories of victims, with what The Washington Post reports as becoming “murky, but rarely false.” Jackie reported her own diagnosis of PTSD following her assault to the Post during its investigations. But now, the errors found in the story threatens to not only invalidate her experience in the public eye but also those of many others who’ve reported sexual assault on campuses such as UVA.
What one must take away from Rolling Stone’s mistake shouldn’t be that people lie about being raped. It should be that time and time again, institutions fail to adequately understand the complexity of the trauma that results from sexual assault and act with that understanding. And in a society in which fraternities such as Penn State University’s Kappa Delta Rho members telling Philadelphia magazine that the fraternity’s Facebook page filled with nude, unconscious, females were “antics” as opposed to undeniable sexual assault and in which, according to One in Four President John Foubert, not one but three studies show that fraternity members are three times more likely to rape than other male students, mistakes cannot be made. Mistakes can also not be made by the news agency reporting about the situation. The consequences of failing to listen to survivors and properly report their story can leave us with the bitter aftertaste similar to the one when we realize those who raped Jackie, whatever their identity, might never see a courtroom.