Count Rolling Stone itself now among the journalists questioning the truth of its own story, Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s “A Rape on Campus.” The narrative account of a young woman who describes being gang raped in a University of Virginia fraternity house set off a series of critical responses to Erdely’s decision not to attempt to interview any of the men Jackie, the main source of her story, accused of raping her.
The story’s detailed account of the gang rape was vivid, brutal, disturbing. But the details that were missing — an explanation of how Erdely attempted to contact the alleged rapists for an interview, or other potential witnesses who could have independently corroborated details of Jackie's story of that night — caught the notice of other journalists, and news outlets like Slate and the New York Times started asking pointed questions about the ethics of deciding to let a huge and potentially damaging story ride on a single source. Meanwhile, the story continued to blow up, the case went to the Charlottesville police for a criminal investigation, the university pledged to work on its policies, and the chapter of Phi Kappa Psi, the fraternity named in the story, was suspended.
Today, Rolling Stone managing editor Will Dana published a statement saying the magazine regrets not taking further steps to contact the alleged assailants, because it turns out that Jackie’s story, as she told it to Erdely, might not line up.
This isn’t a case of triumphant gotcha. Nobody wins here — not the University of Virginia, which now bears more than perhaps its fair share of scrutiny for campus sexual assault, a pervasive problem for which UVA is hardly unique. It's doubtful the critics who pointed out the holes in Erdely’s reporting, which is not the same as questioning Jackie’s story itself, are celebrating this vindication. A harrowing story that could have been true now might not be, but the damage to the accused may already be done, so either way you look at the UVA story, there's the potential for deep trauma to young people's lives.
What Rolling Stone's statement doesn't reveal is why the second round of fact-checking was apparently more fruitful than its first. Were editors more rigorous in following up on details after they came under fire for Erdely's reporting decisions? Or did the accused or witnesses, now under a microscope, come forward with information that could have complicated the story from the start?
When reporting on sensitive subjects like this that have little to no official documentation for whatever reason, a key source's trust is crucial to getting the story. But it's not the only key. And one account, no matter how often it's repeated on campus, is only one side of a question that the accused deserve the opportunity to answer themselves, or else decline: What happened that day? In the wake of the criticism, some asked whether Erdely's story would have been so vigorously questioned if the crime in question had been armed robbery instead of rape. That's not an unfair question; rape victims face uphill credibility battles every day in our culture that robbery victims don't, which was one big reason why Erdely was so sensitive to Jackie's desire that she not contact the accused. But in a community like a college campus, where enough identifying details were given to create a likely short-list of alleged perpetrators, then yes, every effort should be made to offer those specific individuals the opportunity to confirm or deny whether they committed a violent or violently coercive crime.
For the reporter, it might make navigating the trust of the key source difficult, and it might feel like the slimiest thing to do to a person who seems to have gone through so much trauma. But fairness demands it. Reporters are trained professionals, and they're also human. Your gut only gets you so far. Nobody has an infallible internal lie detector, and with so much riding on this story — a true reform of campus sexual assault policies nationwide, for instance — to avoid confronting the accused directly jeopardizes any impact the story can make. It's a huge risk, and one that critics are right to question.
Rape victims and their advocates stand to lose the most from this development, especially on campuses, where sexual assaults are underreported and often dismissed by officials as trivial morning-after regrets. Jackie's story resonated for a reason — cases like those in Steubenville, Ohio, and Norman, Oklahoma, where photo and video evidence of rape circulated through text messages and social media forced small conservative communities to act instead of cover up these crimes, and the mounting evidence against celebrities like Bill Cosby and Jian Ghomeshi accused of sexual assault, have helped tip momentum toward presumed credibility for people who step forward with stories of sexual assault. This could have been the year the myth of the "girl who cried rape" was relegated to the statistical improbability pile where it belonged. Instead, the assumed credibility of all victims, not just Rolling Stone's, is likely to take a hit.