FRANSEN: Rolling Stone and the limits of journalism

elena color sidedWhen a sexual assault survivor shares his or her experience with someone, that person is encouraged to listen to what he or she is willing to share and to be non-judgmental. Reaffirming a sense of control is part of supporting the recovery process after a traumatic incident when it was likely taken away.

For a friend, this seems like common sense but it can be trickier when you are a journalist drawing on others’ experiences to create your own story and a broader narrative.

Rolling Stone writer Sabrina Erdely learned this the hard way after writing “A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA,” which drew immediate backlash and later redaction for its inaccuracies pertaining to a University of Virginia student’s reported gang rape at a fraternity house. The piece went viral and drew many different readers and responses.

Journalists and readers alike were outraged by the possible falsehoods depicted in the account of “Jackie.” People would remember this rather than Erdely’s larger narrative on campus rape culture and how universities deal with the reality of sexual assault.

In the aftermath, Rolling Stone reached out to the Columbia School of Journalism to conduct a critical review of Erdely’s investigative reporting and what led up to the publishing of the piece.

The critical report reflects Erdely’s hesitancy to trust Jackie’s story without verification or substantial evidence, yet she also did not pursue a different account because Jackie’s was so dramatic and shocking. After initial questions started to pop-up, Erdely asked Jackie for more information, including the dress she wore the night of the incident and statements from people she saw yet continued to push the story forward in the editing and publishing process.

While fault was found in Rolling Stone’s journalistic process for failing to follow the basics, the report also leaves the impression that journalism has no place in evaluating and representing the story of sexual assault and rape survivors objectively.

Journalists want to tell stories and often tackle larger social justice issues along the way. Though commendable, journalists are not conducting criminal investigations where they can require evidence and hold someone accountable, especially in a traumatic incident when there can be contradictory accounts and missing memories. Writers should be critical but not to the point where they diminish someone’s difficult experience to the facts and evidence.

The report may set a new guideline for reporting rape cases, but it might not be teaching the right lessons.

“Ultimately, we were too deferential to our rape victim; we honored too many of her requests in our reporting,” Rolling Stone editor Sean Woods said in the report. “We should have been much tougher, and in not doing that, we maybe did her a disservice.”

Woods learned something from this nightmare yet it goes against everything advocates are trying to demonstrate to victims of sexual assault. Some say the original story most egregiously affected victims by showing them the negative consequences of reporting, yet I think what people are taking away from its retraction and the critical report have the worst implications: even if you do speak up, people can discredit you and no one will care.

It remains unclear if Rolling Stone was really trying to do a service to Jackie. It seems unlikely. As the magazine tried to prove a greater point, that rape has major ramifications and that universities need to deal with it, a survivor was revictimized and put under new scrutiny for her possible experiences. Rolling Stone and Charlottesville police found no substantive evidence for the alleged account but as both should remember, that does not mean something did not take place.

Rolling Stone, and people who are influenced by this series of events, needs to work on its response to the critical report in order to get back to that greater point of awareness and advocacy the original article was trying to prove.

As a survivor with my own particular experience, I think the public needs to understand the problem facing victims and how they are currently being dealt with. And maybe that is best done by not putting victims on trial for what they have been through.

My story is my own and it is not for anyone else to use for another purpose. For many survivors, it takes a long time to reconcile with our own experiences, which is only made more difficult by someone else, be it assailant, friend or reporter, challenging what you have been through to make some point of an interesting story.

The truth is, survivors of campus sexual assault know there is a problem—we faced it. We are not being served by sensationalized accounts or the controversial statistics that one in five or seven women are sexually assaulted during college. It is attention-grabbing but our attention is elsewhere, on changing the culture that hurt us and learning to care for ourselves.

Serving us means allowing us to tell our own stories and to share what we have been through without threat of someone grilling us for more details or evidence. This applies to friends, family, police and journalists. Survivors are coming forward in different ways and this should be embraced.

Journalists can still tell stories, but there must be an understanding that experiences of assault are not theirs to tell or justify.