The outrage of the moment in Sommers-land is the journalistic failings of a Rolling Stone article reporting on an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia. Rebecca Traister at The New Republic discusses this meta-story (so note we’re at level 4 here).
Over the past few days, several publications have reported journalistic lapses in Rolling Stone‘s blockbuster story about an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia. The reporter, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, never contacted the men that her subject, a student she calls “Jackie,” alleges raped her. Erdely also did not acknowledge in the body of the piece that she did not contact them.
These are serious charges: Journalists are supposed to seek multiple perspectives on the stories they report to try to present the fullest and fairest assessment of events; this is especially true when one source is alleging that a criminal act took place. It’s ironic and telling, though, that Erdely’s doubters have blown up their suspicions well beyond the available evidence, calling her story a “hoax” and comparing it to the fabricated pieces published by Stephen Glass in The New Republic and other magazines.
Imagine my lack of surprise.
It’s a massive leap in logic to move from a reasonable journalistic critique of Erdely’s reporting and disclosure practices to writing, as former George journalist Richard Bradley does in his blog post, “I’m not convinced that this gang rape actually happened.” It is symptomatic of exactly the patterns of incredulity and easy dismissal of rape accusations that keep many assaulted women and men from ever bringing their stories to authorities or to the public.
The reporting can be badly flawed and the story still be true, after all.
Consider that the weaknesses of the criminal system prompted Jackie not to tell her rape story first to police, but rather to friends—many of whom, she claims, blamed her and urged her not to go to authorities—and then to the university’s private system, which she says treated her poorly. It’s not so hard to imagine that by the time she got to Erdely with her story, she might reasonably have been fearful of retaliation. It was Jackie’s discomfort with identifying her victims, and her fear of the consequences, Erdely told The Washington Post, that led her to tread too delicately in her investigations.
Well let’s face it – people who report being raped always face horrible consequences. Always.
Erdely, in her role as journalist, should have done things differently, should have tried to speak with the figures accused or made explicitly clear that she had not spoken to them. Those handling cases in which more official systems have broken down do everyone, including themselves, a terrible disservice in not behaving with obsessive care.
Remember when PZ published Alison Smith’s account? He made it explicitly clear that he was doing just that.
But do not forget, as we go about what is sure to be the unpleasant business of turning our suspicions on Erdely—and in turn, on Jackie—that the swift shift of focus is central to what’s so jacked about systemic inequalities (and our impulse to pretend they don’t exist) to begin with.
It’s no coincidence that this is what Sommers and her allies are focusing on.