Reporters, when they do their jobs well, often make you feel uncomfortable. That’s because by its nature, journalism is about reporting the extraordinary, and often that involves things that shouldn’t be happening. It’s about injustices, about wrongs we need to know – or wrongs that are being ignored.
So it was last month with a report in Rolling Stone magazine in which a female University of Virginia student recounted a horrific gang rape she suffered at a campus fraternity party. The report immediately had a positive impact. The administration promised action and turned the case over to police, but even better, a larger conversation on campus rape took root at Virginia and across the country as women felt emboldened to tell their stories.
But there were questions about the Rolling Stone story. Most notably, the reporter of “A Rape on Campus,” Sabrina Rubin Erdely, revealed that she hadn’t attempted to contact the accused, including the unidentified male whom the victim said was her main attacker. That was a cardinal journalism sin.
By Friday afternoon, a Washington Post investigation found discrepancies in the accuser’s story. There was apparently no party at the fraternity on the night in question, and officials close to the fraternity say no members of their fraternity match the name or other details of the attacker that the accuser provided to Rolling Stone or the Washington Post.
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The accuser stands by her version of the events, but friends and assault awareness counselors say they now have doubts about her account. Also on Friday, Rolling Stone released an apology that said “we have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced.”
There are a lot of victims here. First, perhaps, are the accused, including the student said to be the main attacker, whose identity was known by many on campus. The fraternity named in the Rolling Stone story also has endured weeks of what seems to be misplaced scorn.
But the larger casualty is that Rolling Stone’s mistake has created enough doubt to give voice to future rape deniers and discourage future victims from coming forth. It also threatens to overshadow the worthy conversations that campus leaders have been having about sexual assault.
Across the country, including in North Carolina, universities have faced internal and external pressure about how they respond to claims of campus rape. That external pressure includes the U.S. Department of Education, which is investigating more than 80 schools to see if they violated federal law in handling such cases.
Those investigations, along with the conversations that sprang from the Rolling Stone report, promised a safer future for college women. We hope, for all those who are victims, that such progress hasn’t been poisoned.