After 'Rolling Stone'

An article that prompted calls for heightened campus action to prevent and punish sexual assault is discredited. Will a backlash hurt these efforts?

December 8, 2014
Illustration of the 'Rolling Stone' article

The past two years have brought unprecedented public focus on the issue of sexual assault on campuses. The issue is hardly new, but a combination of factors -- more women speaking out about being attacked, media attention, heightened scrutiny from the White House -- has changed the discussion. The reaction to "A Rape on Campus," an article published in Rolling Stone last month, reflected this changed environment.

The University of Virginia, where the article was set, saw numerous public protests and private soul-searching about fraternity culture. Students, alumni, trustees and others said that the article -- in which an anonymous woman called Jackie recounted being gang-raped at a fraternity party -- rang true to them. Women spoke of being routinely treated in sexist ways at the fraternity events that are a prominent part of campus social life. Many also spoke of feeling uncertain or doubtful that the university cared.

Administrators vowed reforms. Students, faculty and administrators at many other colleges -- especially those with large Greek systems -- discussed the article. Many publications (including Inside Higher Ed) wrote about the article and the intense reaction.

On Friday, after several articles elsewhere raised questions about some details of the article, Rolling Stone published a note to readers in which it said it now had doubts about the story.

"In the face of new information reported by The Washington Post and other news outlets, there now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie's account," the note said. "We published the article with the firm belief that it was accurate. Given all of these reports, however, we have come to the conclusion that we were mistaken in honoring Jackie's request to not contact the alleged assaulters to get their account. In trying to be sensitive to the unfair shame and humiliation many women feel after a sexual assault, we made a judgment – the kind of judgment reporters and editors make every day. We should have not made this agreement with Jackie and we should have worked harder to convince her that the truth would have been better served by getting the other side of the story." (Here is the article in The Washington Post that many media critics say expertly summarized the gaps and problems in the original Rolling Stone piece.)

As journalism experts debate what went wrong in the reporting and publishing of "A Rape on Campus," advocates who have been pushing colleges to do more on sexual assault are considering the ramifications of having an article that bolstered the arguments turn out to be seriously flawed. (Rolling Stone's note did not elaborate on which parts of the story it still believes are accurate.)

Several advocates told Inside Higher Ed that they feared a negative impact from the article -- and that the way the situation has played out could fuel attitudes that discourage women on campus from reporting rapes or that permit some administrators to play down the issue.

"Rape denialists and apologists will always find some way to say something is untrue," said Laura Dunn, executive director of SurvJustice, a group that is pushing for tougher enforcement of laws against sexual assault of students and others. Dunn said that Rolling Stone, by talking about "discrepancies" in Jackie's story, is "blaming the victim."

Those who survive a violent sexual assault of the type described in the article, Dunn said, have been through so much that it is quite likely that they may not remember some details. That doesn't mean that these women are engaged in "false reporting," Dunn said. And campus advocates now need to be talking about this reality.

"It's very common for victims of trauma not to know every single detail," Dunn said. That's why law enforcement and reporters need to track down the details, she said. Just because a woman may be off on some details doesn't mean that the central fact reported -- that she was raped -- isn't true, Dunn said. But the justice system and many others have consistently assumed that a factual inconsistency undercuts an entire account, and this can discourage women who know without doubt that they have been sexually assaulted, but are also aware that they don't know every detail.

Erin Buzuvis, professor of law at Western New England University and founder of Title IX Blog, said via email that the Rolling Stone article and its discrediting could be "very damaging."

"I certainly worry that it will -- consciously or otherwise -- influence the reaction we as a society have to other victims' stories. When a high-profile story about campus sexual assault turns out not to be true, that can certainly fuel a stereotype or myth that lying about rape is a thing women do."

She added: "That Jackie's story has 'discrepancies' does not necessarily mean she was maliciously lying; and it certainly does not mean that other women who report sexual assault are probably lying. The way we treat women who report sexual assault certainly casts doubts that women would lie about if it for self-serving goals. It is also worth pointing out that there are other plausible explanations for the inaccuracies in Jackie's story. As Hannah Rosin suggested in Slate, it is possible Jackie is the victim of some manner of sexual assault, the trauma of which is clouding the details in her memory."

Buzuvis also said she was concerned that the backlash over the article may be used by those who are questioning the current move of many colleges and universities (prodded by the U.S. Education Department) to move to a "preponderance of evidence" standard in judging sexual assault cases, not the criminal standard of guilt beyond all reasonable doubt.

"Assuming that the 'discrepancies' that came up in the re-reporting of the Rolling Stone story are true, I posit that no Title IX-compliant disciplinary process would have on these facts sanctioned the individual ('Drew') [who is described in the article as leading Jackie into the gang rape] or his fraternity," Buzuvis said. "The preponderance of evidence standard would not have been satisfied. Therefore, the take-away from this story should NOT be that we need to impose extra procedural protections for those accused of rape. Moreover, if we accept the possibility that Jackie was not maliciously lying but was struggling with accuracy as a result of trauma or fear, that too speaks to the importance of a Title IX-compliant disciplinary process. If students trust the system, they will feel safe and supported in reporting assault right away, when details are fresh and can more easily be remembered with accuracy."

Other advocates are less worried about the impact of the article. Bill Flack, associate professor of psychology at Bucknell University and an organizer of the national group Faculty Against Rape, said that he views the lesson from the current discussion as more simple: "One or a few faulty narratives, whatever the details in this particular case, do not call into question the substantial research evidence that campus sexual assault is a serious, chronic public health issue."

Indeed, however discredited the Rolling Stone article may be, this year has seen devastating portraits of fraternity culture that involve dangerously excessive drinking, deadly hazing, reports of sexual assault and sexual harassment -- and efforts to cover up all of the above. Consider this series from Bloomberg or this article from The Atlantic.

Alan Berkowitz, who consults with colleges about how to prevent sexual assault, said via email that sexual assault is a "common" problem on college and university campuses, regardless of the Rolling Stone article. "The appropriate response is therefore to use the situation as a spur to action to create safety for victims to come forward and for colleges and universities to offer a fair and responsive process, which the University of Virginia has been accused of not having," he said. "The lesson for higher education therefore remains the same: solve the problem and do not get distracted by controversy about the truth or falsity of a news report."

Can Campuses Investigate Competently?

Some analysts of campus judicial systems are looking at the controversy over the Rolling Stone article and saying that it points to the need for colleges to get out of the business of handling sexual assault allegations. Currently, federal law does not give colleges the authority to do so, as someone bringing a complaint can decline to inform the police but request a campus investigation.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has criticized many of the recent shifts in campus procedures as potentially eroding the due process rights of the accused. FIRE published a statement on Friday about the latest developments on the Rolling Stone article, saying that it pointed to all the flaws of relying on campus officials to handle these allegations.

"Jackie’s allegations should have been investigated by law enforcement -- not university administrators -- two years ago. Whether Jackie’s account is true or false, the immediate involvement of law enforcement would have provided the best chance to see dangerous criminals imprisoned or the accused cleared of suspicion," said the FIRE statement.

"As FIRE has repeatedly argued, sexual assault allegations require a professional response from law enforcement, not a self-interested campus judiciary. Universities can competently provide alleged victims with resources, counseling, and remedial measures. But they cannot consistently provide just outcomes upon which all parties can rely," said FIRE's analysis. "Only the criminal justice system has the resources and authority necessary to investigate allegations, gather evidence, and, if necessary, arrest and try the alleged perpetrators. Only the criminal justice system can ensure that those accused of such a heinous crime receive the proper due process safeguards necessary to arrive at a fair and just verdict. If the accused is found guilty, only the criminal justice system can enforce the proper punishment."

More Investigations, More Discussion at U.Va.

Whatever the long-term impact of the Rolling Stone article and its discrediting, campuses continue to receive scrutiny for how they respond to sexual assault allegations.

On Friday, federal officials confirmed that they were investigating charges related to how Elizabethtown College responded to an incident of alleged sexual violence, the Associated Press reported. And, as detailed in another AP report, federal officials have also launched an investigation of the way the University of New Mexico handles student complaints about sexual assault and sexual harassment.

A list provided by the Education Department last week identified 90 colleges (including Elizabethtown but not New Mexico) under investigation as of that time.

One of those institutions is the University of Virginia.

Teresa A. Sullivan, president of the university, issued a statement Friday, in which she said that she was aware of the latest from Rolling Stone, but that it would not alter the efforts at the university to consider whether it could do a better job of preventing sexual assault and dealing with assaults that do take place.

"The university remains first and foremost concerned with the care and support of our students and, especially, any survivor of sexual assault. Our students, their safety, and their wellbeing, remain our top priority," Sullivan said. "Over the past two weeks, our community has been more focused than ever on one of the most difficult and critical issues facing higher education today: sexual violence on college campuses. Today’s news must not alter this focus."

But if Sullivan isn't altering her position, some students may be altering theirs. Some comments on the website of the student newspaper, The Cavalier Daily, said that the problem of rape on campus was real -- whatever happened or didn't happen to Jackie. "The possible discrepancies being brought to light (by the fraternity's lawyer, people!!!) in this story don't change the fact that rape is rampant at this university and has been since women were first admitted in 1970. This problem is real at UVA and everywhere. As a current student, I would like to make the case that RS did us a favor. We received a wake-up call," wrote one student.

But many others focused on the damage to the university's reputation (and that of members of the fraternity named in the article) caused by the article or argued that the magazine's statement Friday raises questions about the prevalence of rape on campus. Wrote another student: "If rape is rampant at this university, why did RS have to resort to fabricated allegations? I find it troubling the various versions of 'who cares if this was false, as long as it served a good cause?' found in these comments. We shouldn't resort to wrecking the lives and reputations of people without evidence in the service of some wake up call."

And others said that there was courage in questioning some reports of rape. Wrote one student: "So as I understand it, Atticus Finch is now the bad guy in To Kill a Mockingbird, because he doubted a story about rape."


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