Is bad journalism the standard where campus rape is concerned?
In light of the controversy surrounding a recent Rolling Stone article detailing the alleged gang rape of a student at a UVA fraternity party, it would certainly seem so.
Not long after the article's Nov. 19 publication date, doubts were cast on the veracity of the article and the quality of the reporting, particularly the author's failure to contact the accused. On Dec. 5, the Washington Post published a piece casting doubt on "key elements" of the student's -- "Jackie's" -- story, and Rolling Stone issued an apology letter backing away from the piece.
In the letter, Rolling Stone initially blamed the blunder on Jackie, with editor Will Dana stating: "In the face of new information, there now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie's account, and we have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced."
The statement prompted a great deal of well-deserved vitriol, resulting in the magazine editing the letter without noting that they had done so. The sneak-edit was undoubtedly slimy, but it reflects a larger disturbing trend within mainstream media, and society at at large, to use discrepancies in the minutiae of a rape case to dismiss the assault and the credibility of the victim entirely.
The actual discrepancies introduced by the Washington Post are few: one, the individual whom Jackie claimed brought her to the fraternity was apparently a member of a different fraternity; and, two, a student who allegedly came to Jackie's aid claimed she initially gave a different account of what happened that night. The fraternity also released a statement denying knowledge of the assault, or that there was a social function the night Jackie believes she was assaulted.
For someone who knows little to nothing about rape, fraternities, or the contemporary college party scene -- which unfortunately seems to characterize a lot of the coverage thus far -- these discrepancies might initially seem like gaping holes in Jackie's story.
However, as any medical professional or victim advocate will tell you, trauma-related memory inconsistencies are extraordinarily common in cases of sexual assault, often manifesting in the survivor describing the incident to first responders as less severe than it actually was. Such plasticity of memory is not unique to rape cases; the FBI, for example, notes that "there can be a wide range of after effects to a trauma," which can impact on a victim of a violent crime or the victim's family members. A list of these effects includes confusion, disorientation, memory loss and slowed thinking. Psychological research has long demonstrated that humans reconstruct, rather than recall, memory, which is why eyewitness testimony is considered one of the most dubious forms of evidence in a court of law.
Furthermore, it is important to note that the so-called "inconsistencies" in Jackie's story don't necessarily invalidate her version of events. The fraternity's statement is in no way more credible than Jackie's own word -- in fact, I would argue less so, given the sheer prevalence of fraternity rape. It would be foolish to assume that a fraternity's formal denial of "knowledge of these alleged acts" means that they did not occur (with or without current leadership's knowledge), as it would be foolish to rule out that the "date function" Jackie thought she was invited to wasn't pure pretense in the first place. It is also within the realm of possibility that Jackie was brought to the party by a man who didn't necessarily belong to the fraternity, even that he misled her about his membership in the frat. It is also possible that the student who gave a different version of how he found Jackie that night, lacks credibility or is himself having trouble recalling events.
Ultimately, these are all details significant to a police or journalistic investigation, upon which the responsibility is on law enforcement and journalists to figure out. For Jackie, however, it doesn't change much. It doesn't change her experience of violent assault, or those of countless students like her, many of whose stories are also featured in the article in question. It does not change the majority of the material in the original article: not the debasing lyrics of the UVA fight song; not the person who hurled a bottle at Jackie's face the first time she tried to speak out; not the 38 students who appeared in Dean Nicole Eramo's office in just one academic year to discuss incidents of sexual assault, despite the fact that not one student has ever been expelled from UVA for a sexual offense.
In light of these facts, in light of my own rape and the rapes of too many of my friends at the hands of their peers, I do wonder: Whose credibility is really to be doubted here? Jackie's or the public peanut gallery that has diluted sexual assault down to a number and a date?
As someone who is both a rape survivor and journalist, the irresponsibility with which many journalists and publications have treated the issue of rape on college campuses astounds me. Numerous so-called respectable publications have printed op-eds authored by individuals with zero professional credibility for discussing campus rape, which often contain egregious misstatements of fact or vicious personal attacks on survivors.
To cite a recent example, The New York Times published an op-ed in November in which Jed Rubenfeld, a criminology professor at Yale, falsely contends that most college sexual misconduct policies stipulate that an intoxicated person -- that is, someone who has consumed any amount of alcohol -- cannot give consent. However, this is relatively rare outside of the (one) example that he gives. A sampling of policies from top-ranked universities, including the University of Michigan, University of Pennsylvania, Cornell University, University of California Los Angeles, University of Southern California and Rubenfeld's own Yale University contain no such stipulation; rather, they state that a person who is incapacitated, due to the effects of drugs or alcohol, cannot give consent, which is very different from someone who has consumed some quantity of alcohol (intoxicated), but is still capable of understanding the circumstances in which they are placed.
In other words, Rubenfeld exaggerated standard university policy as defining all drunk hook-ups as non-consensual, so that he could elicit hysteria from his readers about institutions that have gone "too far" in responding to and punishing incidents of rape. The Times never corrected the error, nor was it even acknowledged by anyone in the mainstream media.
A similar lack of reaction characterized the publication of "Feminism and its Discontents," an op-ed published in The Weekly Standard in which Harvard professor Harvey Mansfield draws a nonexistent distinction between "rape" and "women cajoled into something they did not feel they consented to." Mansfield also contends that the patriarchy makes a better "ruler" of women than feminists. Does a man who deals in terms of how women should be "ruled" have any place writing an op-ed about rape (let alone teaching young women at Harvard)? Not in my book, but thus defines the difference between the editor of The Standard and I.
Notably, both of the aforementioned op-eds were written by male professors, who hold positions of authority over the very campus rape survivors they intend to vilify. The institutions where these men teach have allowed their own faculty to propagate misleading information that shames and intimidates students who choose to come forward about their rapes, posing a direct threat to the safety and wellbeing of campus rape survivors.
The lack of concern demonstrated by both publications and schools for the inaccurate and irresponsible media narrative about rape is a function of a culture fixated on picking apart the credibility of rape survivors, instead of the credibility of societal structures that allow tens of thousands of sexual assaults to go unpunished every year.
In this legacy, Rolling Stone made its epic blunder. In this legacy, also, it was scrutinized while The New York Times, The Washington Post and countless other publications that have done sub-par reporting on campus rape, were not. In this case, there was a victim to scapegoat, and even Rolling Stone was able to write off its own mistakes on her credibility. This is not to say that bad journalism deserves to stand unchallenged. To the contrary, all of this garbage should be dragged through the mud. But leave the survivors out of it.