“The doubt cast on Jackie’s story has been feeding the myth that we have been combating for 40 years that women lie about rape.”
Such was the published reaction of Emily Renda, a former University of Virginia student, and a friend of “Jackie,” the centerpiece of a much-talked-about story in Rolling Stone about the high incidence of sexual assault at U.Va., and the shockingly callous attitude the school’s administration seemed to have when dealing with the problem.
The story of Jackie’s brutal gang rape at the hands of multiple fraternity brothers at the university’s flagship campus in September 2012, made headlines and propelled both a renewed national debate and moves by U.Va. officials to revise the way it handles assaults and redefine its relationship with its Greek system.
On Friday, The Washington Post published a story casting doubt on Jackie’s account, and, by the kind of reductive logic that pervades critiques of modern journalism, the story as a whole. According to the Post, and to the people who know Jackie who were interviewed by WaPo, some of the specifics in Jackie’s narrative — from the date, to the number of attackers, to the fraternity affiliation of the man who brought Jackie to the scene of the crimes — do not hold up to scrutiny, or are at least inconsistent.
“In the face of new information, there now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie’s account, and we have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced,” said Will Dana, Rolling Stone’s managing editor, in a statement.
Really? Your trust in her was misplaced? That’s the problem here?
Major publications like Rolling Stone have professional editors, copy editors and fact checkers. With stories like this one (well, any stories, but especially with stories like this), where the futures of individuals and institutions potentially hang in the balance, the details are vetted, checked and rechecked. And lawyered. Yes, Rolling Stone has lawyers too.
For Dana to proclaim their trust in Jackie was “misplaced,” seems a monumental shirking of responsibility.
It may turn out that Jackie’s story isn’t 100 percent true (if you define truth as having every date, time and name letter perfect) — it may even turn out that it is only 50 percent true, but does that mean that it was her fault that Rolling Stone ran with it?
“This DOES NOT mean the woman lied about being raped,” tweeted author and Guardian Columnist Jessica Valenti. “Many victims have trouble recounting trauma.” To Valenti (and to many others tweeting and talking about this today), Rolling Stone “threw [Jackie] under the bus,” to cover for their own shortcomings.
Boing Boing founder and co-editor Xeni Jardin also went to Twitter: “I was raped in my teens by a stranger, while drunk. Many details were a blur to me during, after, and even today. Was I, am I, lying? No.”
And, to look at the response from U.Va., which was practically turned upside down by the revelations in the Rolling Stone article (the broad revelations about the school’s culture and the administration’s negligence), they weren’t particularly worried about the details, either.
This is not to say that journalists shouldn’t strive to thoroughly check everything they publish. But it’s also not to say hat reporting the stories of assault victims don’t pose special problems. In fact, the Dart Canter, a project of the Columbia School of Journalism, has published special guidelines for reporting on sexual violence. And included there are instructions for conducting interviews and questioning sources with extreme sensitivity, acknowledging that the trauma being discussed can pose both lingering emotional difficulties and real physical threats to the subject.
Of course, what Rolling Stone has done with their anybody-but-me-a-culpa, does something very much the opposite.
“No matter what the truth is behind this story, rape survivors will suffer because of the @RollingStone's fuck up,” added Valenti.
“What Rolling Stone has done is ensure that victims will continue to stay silent,” tweeted author Roxane Gay.
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And there is already a little twist in what will certainly be an ongoing story. As writer Jamison Foser of Media Matters noted, The Washington Post has already had to delete one of the most damning claims in its exposé. The original version of the Post story said that the student Jackie named had never met her in person. But that line has now disappeared from the updated digital version of the story.
In whom did WaPo misplace their trust?