Sabrina Erdely had been searching for a story that was emblematic of America’s campus rape crisis when, last July, she stumbled on something truly sensational: an insidious, brutal gang-rape of a young woman, “Jackie,” by nine fraternity brothers at the prestigious University of Virginia.
On November 19, the alleged victim’s horrifying, detailed account of the incident to Erdely, a contributing writer for Rolling Stone, became the center of 9,000-word investigative feature in the magazine. It fueled our worst nightmares about campus rape, prompting national panic and outrage.
At a time when the Obama administration was investigating schools for their mishandling of rape on campus, UVA had grievously failed Jackie and other victims mentioned in Erdely’s story.
In the immediate wake of the story’s publication, few guessed that Erdely, not UVA’s callous administrative overlords, had in fact failed Jackie and all victims of sexual assault.
Two male journalists who dared question the story’s veracity—Richard Bradley, editor-in-chief of Worth magazine who had edited renowned fabulist Stephen Glass, and Robby Soave from the libertarian magazine Reason—were excoriated by feminists as rape apologists and “UVA truthers.”
In a nuanced rebuttal to their early skepticism, Jezebel’s Anna Merlan wrote that Soave “takes Bradley’s giant ball of shit and runs with it”, dismissing them both as “two guys who have no idea what they’re talking about.”
How dare they suggest Erdely had fabricated parts of the story? How dare anyone question Jackie’s story?
But it was this very mentality that got Erdely and Rolling Stone into trouble to begin with. Erdely was so determined to tell Jackie’s horrific story that she failed to do the kind of due-diligence reporting taught in Journalism 101.
Instead, Erdely relied solely on Jackie—a single, unreliable source—to mount a series of damning accusations against UVA and Phi Kappa Psi, the fraternity where Jackie claimed she was raped.
Among the findings of Sunday’s 13,000-word report from the Columbia University School of Journalism into the Rolling Stone feature: basic journalistic precepts were dismissed or “rationalized as unnecessary” by Erdely and other Rolling Stone staffers during the six months she spent reporting the story.
Details (or lack thereof) that should have been triple-checked were pushed through without considerable fuss because, according to the story’s primary editor Sean Woods, they wanted to be “deferential to the victim.”
While the authors of the report say this explanation “cannot adequately account for what went wrong,” it’s clear that Erdely wanted Jackie’s story to be true, even if she had doubts about her subject’s narrative.
Indeed, she’d been searching for a story that would be totemic of a larger societal issue to shed light on. And Jackie’s story was particularly compelling. She was the victim not only of a sadistic sex crime, but also of an institutional failure at UVA.
Erdely and Rolling Stone fell prey to these confirmation biases, as did a majority of their readers.
“Erdely believed the university was obstructing justice,” the J-School report notes. “UVA had a flawed record of managing sexual assault cases. Jackie’s experience seemed to confirm this larger pattern. Her story seemed well established on campus, repeated and accepted."
We all have pre-existing biases, and it can be difficult to get out of our own way as journalists— to disregard whatever preconceived notions, politically motivated opinions, or gut feelings we have about our sources.
It can be particularly difficult when reporting on a crime as emotionally fraught as rape, especially at a time when the White House has thrown its weight behind activists raising awareness about rape on campus.
An activist’s job is to protect victims, so it’s no wonder they think that the burden of proof in rape cases should fall on the alleged assailant. And nowhere is activism more alive than on campuses.
To question an alleged rape victim’s story is to be a rape denialist, a rape apologist, a misogynist, a bad woman and friend.
But journalists are not in the business of protecting people’s feelings, as much as we often feel compelled to do so, whether for personal reasons or because we don’t want to seem indifferent to today’s popular feminist-activist agenda.
We don’t want to re-traumatize anyone, but this cannot be the bottom line for journalists. As the J-School report notes, “counselors have cautioned journalists to allow survivors some control over their own stories…Yet it does survivors no good if reporters documenting their cases avoid rigorous practices of verification.”
Even as we rush to criticize Erdely, we should all learn from this hideous mess too.
Those who defended Erdely and Jackie did so for reasons that mirror Rolling Stone’s decision to publish Jackie’s account without corroborating it: it confirmed cultural biases.
Rolling Stone should have been more transparent about quotes provided by Jackie but attributed to pseudonymous friends.
If the magazine had successfully gotten in touch with the three friends Jackie claimed she saw the evening she was raped, they would have contradicted the account Jackie gave Erdely, including the defamatory remarks about “Cindy,” who was labeled a “self-described hook-up queen” in the original story.
Jackie may have proved to be a “challenging source” who was often elusive when Erdely tried to reach her. But the friends she told Erdely about could have been tracked down by any dogged reporter.
Indeed, the Washington Post managed to get in touch with them, and they remembered the night of Jackie’s alleged attack much differently than Jackie had recalled it to Rolling Stone. That alone might have been sufficient reason to abandon Jackie’s story.
And when Jackie gave vague information identifying her assailant, citing fears that he would attack her, Erdely should have gone to greater lengths to confirm or refute her word.
The J-School report comes on the heels of a Charlottesville police investigation released at the end of March, which found “no substantive basis to support the account alleged [by Jackie] in the Rolling Stone article.”
Erdely was a negligent reporter and essentially allowed Jackie to control the journalistic process because she believed her to be the victim of a pernicious and savage crime. When Jackie stonewalled her, Erdely and her editors turned their attention to the administration.
She believed administrators were systemically covering up rape on campus, so she didn’t pursue interviews with some sources who might have thwarted her investigation. To Erdely and Rolling Stone, Jackie wasn’t just a rape victim, she was a preeminent victim of rape culture.
Without Jackie, there would have been no “Rape on Campus” impugning young men as monsters and UVA as a corrupt institution. But by relying solely on Jackie’s story, Erdely impugned herself, her subject, and her cause.