This column originally appeared in The Federalist.
In November 2014, Rolling Stone published an article about a gruesome gang rape. It featured a young college student, Jackie, just weeks into her freshman year at the prestigious University of Virginia. She bravely agreed to speak with Sabrina Rubin Erdely and recount a harrowing, detailed account of the brutal gang rape she had experienced at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house on a first date.
Almost immediately, the story was cause for concern. The university suspended all fraternities, a signal that transmitted the allegations Jackie made were, at the very least, plausible. The rise of high-profile Title IX cases at some of the nation’s most exclusive universities further enforced the belief that Jackie’s tale, however horrific, was real.
Disputes emerged quickly. The fraternity had not hosted a party on the night in question. Erdely had never interviewed the man Jackie alleged was the mastermind of her attack, Drew. Erdely had interviewed none of the alleged perpetrators. Quotes appeared to have been manufactured. Not one person at Rolling Stone, not the reporter or a fact-checker, and not one editor, had completed the most basic verification of facts. The story went viral in two waves—first because of the barbarity and neglect it described, then for the disintegration of journalistic ethics and standards it revealed.
Rolling Stone’s Apathy Silences Rape Survivors
The definitive analysis by Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism’s team exposed the myriad, multi-level failures at Rolling Stone. This episode further undermines American confidence in media, and has ignited a political debate about journalism.
Allowing the “A Rape on Campus” story to dissolve without addressing the impact on survivors is a mistake. To be clear, I have a dog in this fight. I am a survivor of a vicious gang rape that lasted six days. I was silent for more than 20 years. I am also the mother of a young woman attending university. Like most parents, I worry about the safety of her and her friends every day.
Every young woman or man who survives rape should feel comfortable communicating with the appropriate legal authorities, including the campus authorities. Survivors alone should determine whether they want to speak out publicly.
Rolling Stone is complicit in more than bad journalism. Rolling Stone is complicit in silencing survivors. Erdely will continue to write for the magazine. The fact-checkers who denied Drew and Phi Kappa Psi a chance to tell their side of the story will all keep their jobs. The editor and publisher are standing by their staff. No consequences, just a bad review from Columbia School of Journalism. They enabled unverified allegations to catch fire, without regard for impact on Jackie, or survivors.
Social Media Shaming and Blaming Isn’t Enough
Perhaps this is where a discussion about generational understanding of the media space is changing. Millennials are accustomed to 24/7 saturation of information, news, social media, and even the practice of catfishing—where someone sets up a fake profile to lure someone into a relationship, or to bully them endlessly.
Those of us in Generation X, Generation Jones, or the Baby Boomer generation need to rethink our management strategies in media and communications. Not only for deeply troubling stories involving rape and campus culture but also in civil rights, human rights, and other important culturally defining issues. Riding in the front seat of the outrage machine is not the same as tangibly impacting policy, leading a movement, or making a real difference in cultural perception. The intellectual laziness of blaming the press, or blaming the victim, or blaming perpetrators—real or imagined—is not enough. We must be better citizens and better advocates for ethics, integrity, and accountability measures.
None of us know the truth about Jackie. Two things linger in my mind. Was she raped? If so, she needs psychosocial care and counseling. Unnecessarily demonizing men or frat culture is not a path to justice. I pray she finds the help and support she needs. Truth and healing will light the path, if she chooses.
If she is not a survivor, she knowingly and willingly chose to tell a story that at best would hurt the fraternity, the university, and her own credibility. Maybe she didn’t understand the story would explode onto the media stage the way it did. Maybe she never considered that a story like this, if unverifiable, impacts survivors and discourages reporting of rape.
Rolling Stone Has Assisted Rapists
Rolling Stone, by not verifying facts, despite their considerable resources, perpetrated a grave injustice against survivors, silencing them and robbing them of their voice. This story damaged the reputations of young men and a university. Men and women are survivors of sexual violence.
To lie about rape is to enable evil. There is no polite way around that fact. It’s not the job of survivors to package rape into a neat media package for liberals and conservatives to eviscerate each other with.
The terror clings to you. Facing it, reporting it, enduring the medical exams and procedures, and following the judicial process is unimaginably difficult. What Rolling Stone did was provide an assist to perpetrators, robbing survivors of credibility. It’s unconscionable. It degrades our shared existence as Americans.
Beyond Jackie and Rolling Stone, there are voices worthy of reading and understanding. Jenny Wilkinson tells her powerful story that also began at the University of Virginia, where she was raped in 1997. She won her case and saw her rapist punished. Her story lacks the graphic details of her rape but is more powerful because it is the truth.
Rolling Stone made it clear that no one will be fired, or resign, after this egregious violation of ethical reporting. The Columbia report should serve as the catalyst for strengthening accountability and fact-checking standards. A retraction is simply not enough.
Elizabeth Blackney is the media and communications director for the Panzi Foundation. An author, mother, and survivor, she develops training for core constituencies in the human rights, political, and philanthropic environments.