The UVa/Rolling Stone rape scandal: Why we need to stop blaming Jackie and start looking at Sabrina (OPINION)

by BREANA BACON

The story turned scandal surrounding the allegations of a popular University of Virginia fraternity gang raping numbers of students over several years has spun the media into a frenzy. Between the apology printed by Rolling Stone magazine, the multiple articles written by the Washington Post and the countless other blogs and articles posted about this ordeal told from the view of UVa student we’ve come to know as Jackie, the issue of credibility and sensationalism has been emphasized,  much to the chagrin of aspiring journalists like me, who only appreciate fiction in their novels.

When I first read Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s article last month, I was compelled to read it twice. Not because I was in shock, but because something in the back of my mind told me that some elements in the article were ‘off,’ so to speak. The point of the article was well-taken, however, the manner in which it was brought about is disappointing.

As a college student studying journalism, one of the first things I’ve learned is the necessity to remain objective. In this situation, I believe Erdely failed miserably to do so. As I previously stated, I found some of the recount of that fateful night at the Phi Kappa Psi frat house too gruesome to be true. I felt like I was watching a Lifetime film instead of reading an article meant to bring awareness to a serious issue. I say that not to in any way discredit Jackie or her story. I take the issue of rape very seriously and although I have never been a victim, I certainly sympathize with those who have. As a college student, I strongly believe that we are living what is known as a ‘rape culture,’ and that some college campuses are taking the pathetic route of blaming the victims if they are found in compromising situations previous to the assault.

According to crisisconnectioninc.org, one in four women in college today have been raped. Every 21 hours there is a rape on a college campus, 90% of them happening with the victim or the attacker having been under the influence of alcohol. The more disturbing fact is that although colleges are made aware of these statistics, only one third of colleges throughout the United States are fully compliant with the Jeanne Cleary Act, which requires schools to report all on-campus crime, including sexual assault, to federal education officials.

These sad realities of college campuses, many of which boast in brochures and websites the procedures used to keep students safe, are reasons why many rape victims do not come forward. Only 10% do. Given the expectation of being ignored, not believed, and even blamed, I commend Jackie for being brave enough to come forward with her story and hope to spark national interest so that eventually, no one else would experience that type of dehumanization.

As expected, Phi Kappa Psi has denied any claims of gang rape despite the current and previous UVA students who have come forward saying that they were assaulted by members of the frat. Further digging by other news publications has proven that the man whose name Jackie provided as her date for that night, is not a member of the fraternity and furthermore, the fraternity did not even host an event the night of the alleged rape. It has also come to light that Jackie changed the number of her attackers from five to seven. Also doubtful was whether Rolling Stone was truthful about reaching out to the parties involved, seeing as many of them were available for comment when contacted by other news outlets. There are several elements in the story that have proven to be dubious, if not untrue. Even though I am now aware of these questionable parts of the story, instead of wondering whether the entire story is true, I’m more concerned on the misreporting in the original article.

While I believe Jackie’s intentions were pure, I cannot say the same for the writer of her story. Before updating their apology, Rolling Stone noted that they came to the conclusion that their trust in Jackie was “misplaced.” For that line, I believe that many readers felt their trust in Rolling Stone was also misplaced. My trust in Erdely was never there to begin with.

Rape is most certainly nothing to be played with at all. It is not joke. But, I believe this article made it out to be one. According to a Washington Post article detailing an interview with Jackie, she wanted to remove herself from the story and not go through with the publication. Jackie then revealed that Erdely refused to respect Jackie’s wish and claimed the story would be published regardless of her consent. That brings me back to to why Erdely, as a seemingly credible journalist, would publish a story with as many holes in it as we now have come to realize. What was her motive? The issue called to my attention is just that: the motive was hers.

Whether she felt a strong connection to this topic, I’m not sure, but as a professional journalist, she should have known better. I’m disappointed. I’m supposed to be able to read articles like Erdely’s for inspiration, looking to her as an example of quality writing and top-notch journalism on topics of extreme importance, such as rape. Instead, reading this article, I was forced to read an unbalanced account of a gruesome story. I understand that Jackie may have asked for her attackers to not be contacted (which makes the story seem even more questionable now that it has been said that Jackie herself is unsure of whether her attacker is even part of the fraternity), but the fact still remains that as a journalist, it is your job to produce a fair and balanced story. Telling one side, no matter how compelling it may be, is just bad journalism.

Erdely began to seek the truth and report it, but failed find the entire truth. One that could only be found with accounts from all involved parties. She failed to do the investigative work that would have reduced the gaping holes in the article and attempted to save her skin by putting her lack of interviews on Jackie’s request to shirk attention. She failed miserably to minimize harm. Her story damaged the reputation of a fraternity, a prestigious university and most importantly, the reputation and credibility of a traumatized young woman. It is questionable whether she acted independently, because her motives were clearly not to benefit the subject of the story. Lastly, Erdely was not accountable. She is continuing to stand beside her reporting, although Rolling Stone has publicly announced that the story was misreported and not thoroughly investigated. Her actions have caused even more speculation and criticism of journalism and increased the notion that there is a lack of fairness and balance in the field of journalism today. It is my dream to become a well-respected journalist and my goal is to never have anyone question my credibility. Unfortunately, reporters like Erdely have made that goal a little more difficult to achieve.

Ultimately I am disappointed. First, I’m disappointed in UVA and the lack of action concerning the assault of its students. These women were brave enough to come forward. They placed their trust in school officials and trusted that their attackers would be brought to justice. Our nation’s justice system has recently been called into question with the recent lack of indictments in several cases of police brutality, and now, that has carried over into the nation’s colleges and universities. Many women have called for help again and again and are continually ignored. We live in a society that praises men for being aggressive with women and glorifies the sexuality of the male, while diminishing their accountability and placing the responsibility of eliminating sexual assault solely on women. Telling women they were asking for it, their outfits were too provocative, they drank too much simply tells of a twisted societal mindset, one I cannot support and actively rebuke.

As a college student, I am appalled by the lack of investigation and the repeated victim blaming by the very schools that have promised our parents that they would get us graduated safely. I am disappointed in the Rolling Stone magazine for their lack of attention on the details that they teach us in college to be mindful of. I am disappointed that this article has made a public spectacle of this young woman’s life and her experience. I am disappointed that this entire scandal has overshadowed the main issue at hand: rape is real, it is happening to our college students and most importantly, it is not being handled properly. The responsibility of journalists is to provide a reliable source of information to the public. To inform and to bring awareness. In my perfect world, journalism wins the information battle. This time, journalism lost.

1 Comment

  1. This is a good article which diagnoses many of the flaws in Erdely’s reporting. I agree that she did a miserable job.

    One thing in your own article should be corrected. You say that “one in four women in college today have been raped.” This statistic has been debunked at length. I’d highly recommend the following article on the topic my Slate’s Emily Yoffe: http://www.slate.com/articles/double_x/doublex/2014/12/college_rape_campus_sexual_assault_is_a_serious_problem_but_the_efforts.html

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