When a story isn’t bulletproof, the pain continues

Hey, remember that Rolling Stone article from a few weeks back?

The one with the horrific details of a woman’s alleged rape and subsequent cover up at the University of Virginia? The one that launched investigations by school officials? The one that brought about a large discussions about the responsibility and accountability of fraternities regarding rape?

Well, there might be a problem.

That’s what Rolling Stone said today in a “correction” it buried on its web site. Titled “A Note to Our Readers,” the article said the magazine has now found “discrepancies” in the alleged victim’s account, and said they should have been better in its investigation.

“We were trying to be sensitive to the unfair shame and humiliation many women feel after a sexual assault and now regret the decision to not contact the alleged assaulters to get their account. We are taking this seriously and apologize to anyone who was affected by the story.”

A 9,000 word expose, painful to everyone involved. Swept under the rug by a 300 word non-apology.

When the article was originally published on November 19, it painted a damning picture of fraternity culture and sexual assault on UVA’s campus. In the article, a woman, referred to as Jackie, gave a heartbreaking account of her rape at the hands of several men during a frat party. The details were heinous – how she was led into a room and brutalized while fraternity brothers cheered the assailants on. The article went on to explain UVA’s culpability – how it could have done more to punish the men involved and end the culture of rape and privilege among fraternities on campus.

The story made national headlines. UVA promised an investigation and suspended fraternity activities. The frat itself was vilified, and perhaps rightfully so.

But criticisms against Rolling Stone’s reporting process began to pop up, one of the largest of which was the fact that Rolling Stone never attempted to contact Jackie’s attackers. None of them had been named in the story, but fraternity records and common knowledge in the community could help people put two and two together. Still, none of the alleged attackers were contacted. Now, as the Washington Post is reporting, discrepancies in Jackie’s story have left some of her friends in doubt about what actually happened, and it was enough for Rolling Stone to issue the terse correction.

But the damage has been done all around.

In any story, you seek the truth and report it. It means speaking to people on all sides, regardless if the evidence points toward their guilt. If you’ve uncovered the truth about a terrible crime, it’s a journalists duty to expose it. But you have to bulletproof the story, even if it means talking to the alleged attackers. Without that step, the cracks emerge, and the pain continues.

You need to be sensitive and protect the victim, and not allow the attacker to continue to inflict pain upon that person. But it needs to come while balancing the need for clarification. Be diligent to expose every part of the story.

What’s worse is that this may derail any possible changes that came from the piece. Some worry that rape victims will continue to be afraid to come forward, for fear of being called a liar, or worse. Victims are already put under the microscope for any action or non-action they take after the attack, and the debacle from Rolling Stone provides more fuel for victim-blaming. The entire situation has been made even worse because of a lack of vetting on the part of the reporter.

I don’t know what happened in that frat house that night, and apparently, neither does Rolling Stone. Those men may have raped Jackie. Or maybe some facts were exaggerated or misremembered. But Rolling Stone’s inability to gather all the facts to bulletproof the story has made a terrible situation even worse. You can’t put this kind of puzzle back together when you leave pieces in the box.

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