As things stand, we know virtually nothing about allegations of a gang rape at the University of Virginia. We know that there are now sufficient doubts about the accuracy of the original Rolling Stone cover story that the magazine editor has effectively retracted it. This does not mean, as some are now claiming, that the entire allegation was a hoax, a lie or a fiction. It is by no means certain that the woman known only as Jackie was not, in fact raped, either in the exact manner she described or with key divergences in detail. All we know is that there is an as yet unconfirmed report of a gang rape at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity, and that the Rolling Stone editorial staff have made a quite egregious, unforgivable lapse in journalistic standards and ethics, one which is likely to leave lasting, perhaps permanent damage to their reputation as a magazine and, much more worryingly, serious damage to the credibility of survivors of sexual violence.
All of this is already being picked over and picked apart in forensic detail. Before that process gets too entrenched, I want to point out one key detail that should inform our understanding of this case and, more significantly, our understanding of how this case reflects every other allegation or report of rape and sexual assault.
The Washington Post story yesterday, the article which appears to have proven the final nail in the coffin of Rolling Stone’s credibility, quoted a campus sexual assault specialist called Emily Renda as saying that research shows between two and eight percent of rape allegations are fabricated or unfounded. Notwithstanding the complexities of this field of research, the statement is broadly true. It is also, however, irrelevant.
The estimates of rates of false allegations refer to rapes reported to the police. On that basis, if one went through 100 reported rapes and picked one at random, one could be somewhere between 92% and 98% certain that it was a truthful report. This, however, was not how Sabrina Rubin Erdely found her case study for the Rolling Stone.
As an earlier Washington Post piece had made clear, at the outset of her investigations, Erdely talked to students and others at Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Pennsylvania universities before she found her way to Virginia. The story she settled upon was not typical of sexual assaults on campus, quite the opposite. She appears to have deliberately chosen the most horrifying, the most, extraordinary, the most sensational account she could find. As a journalist I understand the draw of the sensational. It sells magazines. It creates clicks. However just as decent journalists should notice when something is too good to be true, we should also be aware of the risks that something may be too bad to be true. As the old maxim has it, extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence.
The title of the original Rolling Stone article was ‘A rape on campus.’ One presumes it was chosen quite deliberately for its everyday banality. The clear implication is that the story they are telling is a typical, everyday event. They might as well have called it ‘Just another rape on campus.’ Jackie’s story, however, was never typical. When all of this is played out, if it transpires that her account was 100% accurate and honest, it will not be a typical tale of sexual assault. If it transpires her account was 100% fabricated, it still will not be a typical tale of sexual assault.
Survivors of sexual assault have many needs, and that includes responsible media coverage. The catastrophe at Rolling Stone is what happens when journalists stop seeking the truth, and chase after the sensational.