The single most damning word in Columbia Journalism School’s investigation into a discredited (and now retracted) Rolling Stone story about an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia might just be “avoidable.” The report called the story a “journalistic failure that was avoidable,” a product of abandoned due diligence in “reporting, editing, editorial supervision and fact-checking.” The conclusion reached by the investigators was straightforward: It didn’t have to be that way, and it shouldn’t happen again.
And while Rolling Stone still claims that its failures were at least in part a product of being too sensitive to the needs of its primary source, a woman identified as “Jackie,” the team of investigators were unequivocal in placing blame with the magazine and its editorial process. “This failure was not the subject or sources fault... they were problems of methodology,” Columbia Journalism School dean Steve Coll said during a Monday press conference.
The report is an indictment of Rolling Stone’s hunger for a salacious narrative, but it also serves as a powerful reminder about the limits of our public understanding of sexual violence. Rolling Stone abandoned routine journalistic practice to push out a story that it felt had clear villains and an unassailable victim. The failures in reporting and corroboration are Rolling Stone’s alone, but that blind appetite for a tidy narrative about rape is something we all share equally.
"There is clearly a need for a more considered understanding and debate among journalists and others about the best practices for reporting on rape survivors, as well as on sexual assault allegations that have not been adjudicated,” reads one of the conclusions from the report. It’s a simple prompt to do better, followed by a series of recommendations about what better might look like. We should be asking ourselves the same questions about our own responses to rape and sexual assault outside the context of journalism.
According to the investigation, reporter Sabrina Ruben Erdely began her work by contacting Emily Renda, a rape survivor and sexual assault awareness coordinator at the university. Erdely was looking for a “single, emblematic college rape case” to anchor a story on campus assault.
In her notes on that conversation, Erdely wrote that she asked Renda if she knew of a case that would show “what it’s like to be on campus now … where not only is rape so prevalent but also that there’s this pervasive culture of sexual harassment/rape culture.”
So what makes a rape emblematic? Is such a thing even possible with a crime that is so misunderstood and underreported? Clearly Erdely, as well as her editors Sean Woods and Will Dana, thought they had found such a case in a woman they would come to identify as “Jackie,” though they would never successfully corroborate the details of her story.
The Charlottesville police, like Columbia's investigators, concluded that they could not corroborate Jackie's account, but that finding “doesn’t mean that something terrible didn’t happen" on the night in question. But the question of what Erdely hoped to achieve with her narrative, with Jackie as its anchor, is still relevant to the broader question of how we talk about rape.
The assault as portrayed in the piece was horrifically straightforward, with Jackie’s date luring her into a darkened room and then coaching seven men in a ritualized gang rape. It was the kind of violence that leaves little room for the questions about blame and “regretted sex” that seem to characterize so much of how we talk about rape on campus.
That apparent tidiness was likely among the reasons that the story was so appealing to a team of journalists and editors hoping to make a statement about rape culture, even as they failed to verify essential details and obtain other details necessary to publish.
And the Jackie of the Rolling Stone article was also an ideal victim. Erdely wrote that she dumped out the alcohol she was given at the party, and described her as wearing a “tasteful red dress with a high neckline.” The selection of details and message from Rolling Stone was entirely unsubtle: Jackie was not that kind of girl. She wasn’t a victim who was asking for it.
These are the same questions we see asked again and again in writing and reporting on sexual assault because these are the same questions that most people ask themselves when they hear that a woman or a girl has been raped. We vet our victims, and often find ways to blame them.
An 11-year-old victim of a brutal gang rape in Texas is described in the New York Times as a child who was regarded by neighbors as dressing “older than her age, wearing makeup and fashions more appropriate to a woman in her 20s.” The Times also noted that she would also “hang out with teenage boys at a playground."
A man who raped a 14-year-old girl was initially sentenced to 30 days in prison because his victim, according to the judge presiding over the case, was "as much in control of the situation" as her rapist, and was "older than her chronological age." (After public outrage over the case, Stacey Dean Rambold was retried and sentenced to 10 years.)
An 11-year-old in Washington, D.C. reports being raped, but she is the one who ended up with a conviction. The officers charged with handling her case misled her into giving contradictory accounts of the assaults, never considered statutory rape charges and called her “promiscuous.”
According to the investigation, there were other stories that Erdely could have chosen to anchor the piece, but she felt that none of them had the horrific immediacy of what Jackie said happened to her. And so that is the story that Rolling Stone chose to go after, perhaps in part because the public has a remarkably low tolerance for stories about rape that do not fit neatly into our preconceived notions about victims and sexual assault. The "Jackie" of the Rolling Stone story checked all the right boxes.
The report will be taught in journalism classes for decades to come, but it’s also a useful way to examine how we might begin to think differently about rape in our regular lives and not just in reporting. How our desire for tidy stories and “good” victims often obscures the realities and prevalence of sexual violence. And how the rare incidents of false reports often overshadow, in the public imagination, the much greater number of rapes that go unreported every year.
You can see this in the response to the Rolling Stone piece. Because of the magazine’s failure to corroborate the story it chose to anchor the piece, the other, undisputed accounts of sexual assault it documented -- like the 1984 rape of a UVA student named Liz Seccuro, who “went to the dean covered in scabs and with broken ribs," and was asked, “Do you think it was just regrettable sex?” -- have been erased.
Securro is just one of several other victims who told the same story of being mistreated and ignored by their university, but we swiftly forgot them when the details of Jackie’s account began to unravel. A piece that was likely written with the intention of making rape culture at UVA visible has now had the exact opposite effect.
Columbia’s investigation was a necessary corrective to a journalistic failure, but its authors' warning that the Rolling Stone story should not “deter journalists from taking on high-risk investigations of rape in which powerful individuals or institutions may wish to avoid scrutiny but where the facts may be underdeveloped” serves just as well as a message to the rest of us.
The lessons in the report on how to think about sexual violence are many, but among them is the fact that nuance and accuracy are not the enemies of justice. That compassion and diligence are perfectly compatible objectives. And that the truth of a problem does not rest on a "single, emblematic" narrative. That all of our current failures are avoidable. That we don't have to make the same mistakes over and over again.
"In order to do good work, we're going to have to keep talking about the issues in this report," Coll said Monday. That means all of us. Rolling Stone’s failure isn’t an excuse to disbelieve victims or deny the realities of rape culture, it’s a vital reminder of the care required to take rape seriously.