Usually on weekdays, I have a limited amount of time to blog. Usually on any given day from Monday to Friday, I get about 60 minutes to read some news, research some topic and (one hopes) write something interesting before heading out to my day job. Some days it works, some days it doesn't.
Weekends, by contrast, give me a chance to write some longer form blog posts. I get a couple of hours between caffeine rushes and crashes to read, research and write. Today's a Sunday. Today's blog post is a bit more involved.
I spend a great deal of my time here at 2PJ fact-checking; whether it's the anti-science claims of climate denial (or creationism/intelligent design), or some right wing smear regarding (the non-existent) Benghazi Scandal! or (the equally non-existent) Voter Fraud Scandal! My acts of fact-checking are based on my belief that getting as close as possible to the verifiable, the factual, is undeniably the best way to build social policy - and making sure that all your facts are correct is an undeniable part of that process.
Which leads me, today, to this from TalkingpointsMemo
Three weeks after a bombshell Rolling Stone article detailed an alleged brutal gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity, the fraternity released a statement that rebutted some of its central claims and the magazine is distancing itself from the article.
Will Dana, the managing editor of Rolling Stone, said in a statement Friday that the magazine had chosen not to contact any of the accused rapists at the request of “Jackie,” the alleged rape victim at the center of the story, but that the magazine's trust in Jackie had been "misplaced."
"In the face of new information, there now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie's account," Dana said. “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."
The thing about the Rolling Stone story is that it's not just about Jackie's assault. The rape as described in the piece is used as indicative of the rape-culture at UVA and UVA is used as an proxy for the country's colleges and universities. Lots of bad bad stuff going on out there.
But at the heart of the story is Jackie's gang rape. Had it been another woman's gang rape, the overall story would have been the same. But it isn't. Jackie's gang rape is the center of the story.
The problem is that the reporting of Jackie's story isn't what it should be. Its errors erode the confidence the audience should have about the rest of the piece and by extension the greater issue being discussed - campus rape. And that's the big problem.
From Richard Bradley, former editor of George Magazine in an early fact-checking
of the Rolling Stone piece:
The article alleges a truly horrifying gang rape at a UVA fraternity, and it has understandably shocked the campus and everyone who’s read it. The consequences have been pretty much instantaneous: The fraternity involved has voluntarily suspended its operations (without admitting that the incident happened); UVA’s president is promising an investigation and has since suspended all fraternity charters on campus; the alumni are in an uproar; the governor of Virginia has spoken out; students, particularly female students, are furious, and the concept of “rape culture” is further established. Federal intervention is sure to follow.
The only thing is…I’m not sure that I believe it. I’m not convinced that this gang rape actually happened. Something about this story doesn’t feel right.
He is very careful to include this:
Nothing in this story is impossible; it’s important to note that. It could have happened. But to believe it beyond a doubt, without a question mark—as virtually all the people who’ve read the article seem to—requires a lot of leaps of faith. It requires you to indulge your pre-existing biases. [Italics in Original]
He then goes point by point into what about the story that doesn't feel right. Basically, it's because Rolling Stone relies on one source for the information about the rape, Jackie, and says it does so out of sensitivity of the subject. Fine, but he writes that:
One must be most critical about stories that play into existing biases. And this story nourishes a lot of them: biases against fraternities, against men, against the South; biases about the naivete of young women, especially Southern women; pre-existing beliefs about the prevalence—indeed, the existence—of rape culture; extant suspicions about the hostility of university bureaucracies to sexual assault complaints that can produce unflattering publicity.
Then we have three friends who talked to Jackie right after the rape, and apparently discouraged her from going to the hospital or the authorities because they might subsequently be banned from frat parties. Not one of them is named, or interviewed; so the three people who could allegedly corroborate the assault don’t.
And so on. Sabrina Rubin Erdely, the writer of the piece, didn't do enough fact-checking and it turned out that some of the necessary facts are just plain wrong.
The Washington Post also published some checking a few days later
. For example:
Phi Kappa Psi said it did not host “a date function or social event” during the weekend of Sept. 28, 2012, when Jackie alleges that she was invited to a date party, lured into an upstairs room and then ambushed and gang-raped by seven men who were “rushing” the fraternity.
The fraternity also said it has reviewed the roster of employees at the university’s Aquatic and Fitness Center for 2012 and found that it does not include a member of the fraternity — a detail Jackie provided in her account to Rolling Stone and in interviews with The Post — and that no member of the house matches the description detailed in the Rolling Stone account. The statement also said that the house does not have pledges during the fall semester.
It doesn't help that Rolling Stone is trying to deflect some of their responsibility with their apology
Because of the sensitive nature of Jackie’s story, we decided to honor her request not to contact the man who she claimed orchestrated the attack on her nor any of the men who she claimed participated in the attack for fear of retaliation against her. In the months Erdely reported the story, Jackie said or did nothing that made her, or Rolling Stone's editors and fact-checkers, question her credibility.
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.
Discrepancies that they should have seen before going to print.
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. These mistakes are on Rolling Stone, not on Jackie. We apologize to anyone who was affected by the story and we will continue to investigate the events of that evening.
See that? Our mistake was trusting Jackie. Oops, our bad. However, in the time between the Rolling Stone article and the skepticism published about it, this is what happened.
Citing "great sorrow, great rage" and "great determination," University of Virginia President Teresa A. Sullivan says she's suspending all the school's fraternities until Jan. 9. The move comes days after a Rolling Stone article in which a woman described being gang-raped when she was a freshman in 2012.
The Phi Kappa Psi fraternity was the target of an immediate backlash after the article was published. On Wednesday, its house was vandalized...
And then this from People.com
Meanwhile, students kept up their protests, some spray-painting the front of the Phi Kappa Psi house with the words, "UVA Center for Rape Studies. Suspend us!"
Not yet tar and feathers, but symbolically accurate, doncha think?
But just one word or so about Jackie. Something very bad must've happened to her at some point (maybe that weekend, maybe some other weekend, maybe at that fraternity or maybe someplace else - just probably not what was described in the Rolling Stone article). There had to be something pushing Jackie to tell that story to Erdley and Rolling Stone. But let's be clear: It was their responsibility to get it right. If they couldn't report on it without the appropriate fact checking (ie confirming that it happened), then they shouldn't have gone with it. The fact that they went with it more-or-less unconfirmed, indicts a whole mess of bad ideas they had about reporting and rape.
We're only beginning to see the consequences of their decision.
As Hannah Rosin of Slate wrote
It’s still quite possible that something happened to Jackie that night. It’s possible she was so traumatized that she is getting a lot of the details wrong, or that whatever happened to her has taken on greater levels of baroque horror in her imagination. It was hard to take in her original story, of a calmly orchestrated gang rape during a big party. But it’s just as hard to take in that a young woman would make up such a story, tell it to a reporter, and not expect it all to unravel. But strange things happen. And more information will surely come out soon.
One thing we know is that Rolling Stone did a shoddy job reporting, editing, and fact-checking the story and an even shoddier job apologizing.
And that's where the damage occurred. Had Rolling Stone got the story right to begin with, a clearer picture of campus rape would have been presented to the public. Since they didn't, damage was done to the very real efforts of people who are trying to eliminate sexual violence on campus.
As Yvonne Abraham of the Boston Globe points out
It’s disastrous for everybody involved. At this writing, the victim, Jackie, insists she was telling the truth about being raped by seven students. Whatever the truth, she must be in a world of pain right now, particularly if she tried to extricate herself from the magazine story before it was published, as she now maintains.
The destructive fallout goes beyond one woman’s suffering. The Rolling Stone story, which had helped make it all but impossible to ignore the scourge of campus sexual assault, is now going to do the opposite. Because now, emboldened by this one possibly fabricated story of rape, the chorus of people who believe women routinely make these things up will grow louder.
The only way to get around this is to be as factual as possible - ideologically driven pieces (of any issue) that, as Bradley warned, "play into existing biases" will get us, as a culture, absolutely nowhere. The bad reporting by Erdley and Rolling Stone did no one any favors, not Jackie, not UVA, and certainly not the next woman to be sexually assaulted on some college campus somewhere.