There was a collective intake of breath across the internet earlier this afternoon when Rolling Stone published this: a note from managing editor Will Dana about Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s story on a gang rape at a UVA fraternity. Unless you’ve been under a rock, you’ve probably read the story, and cringed at its horrific details. Earlier in the week, Slate questioned Erdely’s reporting methods, suggesting that she should have made more of an effort to contact the alleged perpetrators. And then… this: “In the face of new information, there now appear to be discrepancies in [the victim]’s account, and we have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced.”
First reaction here is: oh no. Dana’s note is vague, perhaps intentionally so, on exactly what the “discrepancies” were. This means that readers are left to form their own conclusions as to how much of the story was true, with the implication being that the entire thing is open to question. (Perhaps not coincidentally, at pretty much exactly the same time as Rolling Stone‘s note was published, the Washingotn Post‘s website published a piece detailing the claims that the fraternity was disputing.)
Second reaction is: OK, there are two separate issues here. There’s the failure to contact the accused rapists, which is clearly a journalistic failing on the part of Erdely. The impression that I, and I suspect many others, got from the original story was that she had reached out to the accused rapists, who had refused to comment. As per Slate’s article, though, this turned out to be inaccurate. Erdely did try to contact the accused, but not especially hard: “I reached out to them in multiple ways. They were kind of hard to get in touch with because [the fraternity’s] contact page was pretty outdated.” Clearly there was room for more effort here, and not giving the accused a chance to respond to such grave accusations is a pretty egregious journalistic error, albeit not one sufficient to discredit the story (especially with the reasons Erdely gave, i.e. that the victim feared retaliation.)
The second is the credibility of the victim’s testimony. This is unrelated to the first point, despite what Dana’s note implies, and obviously only Rolling Stone knows why they have decided to publicly disown her. The clear implication is that the victim was lying, or that her testimony couldn’t be trusted. But wait, because if you look at the details reported by the Post, there’s nothing here that couldn’t be explained by trauma-related memory inconsistencies (or, indeed, just time-related ones): there was apparently no party at the fraternity house on the night the victim claims the gang rape took place, that no members of the fraternity were employed at the University’s Aquatic Fitness Center at the time as the victim claimed, that details of the story have changed over time.
Could you tell me the exact date of a frat party you attended two years ago? Do you know the difference between Phi Kappa Psi and any other fraternity? If you told a story again and again, a story about a traumatic event that happened two years ago, would you get every detail straight every time? (There’s also the fact that difficulty remembering details of a traumatic experience is a textbook symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder.)
As things stand at the moment, neither Rolling Stone‘s shoddy reporting nor the apparent discrepancies in the victim’s testimony are in and of themselves are sufficient to discredit the story. It may well still be that everything the victim reported is fundamentally true; that she got some details wrong, and that her story has been further undermined by the journalistic failures on the part of the magazine. You might read between the lines and come to the conclusion that Rolling Stone wouldn’t spike its big investigative splash-making cover story, throwing both the victim and its journalist under the bus, without being pretty sure the story was wrong. But then, given the general ineptitude of everything the magazine’s done thus far, who knows?
Either way, just writing that their “trust was misplaced,” without specifying how or why, is pretty craven, especially when it’s being done in an “apology” about the way they reported the story in the first place. Rolling Stone needs to make it clear, right now, exactly what they’re saying: are they retracting the entire story? Are they implying that the victim was deliberately lying, or that she got details wrong? At the moment, the vague wording means that both journalist and victim have been left to hang, and Rolling Stone needs to resolve this situation. Now.
The point is, until they do so, no-one knows what’s going on. And in the absence of detail, people should go with the facts that remain: that some of the details reported in the story are apparently incorrect. Does that discredit the entire story? As it stands at the moment, the answer has to be: no. Unless anyone says otherwise — and provides concrete evidence as to why — the victim’s story could nonetheless be substantively true, and given the general lack of belief accorded to rape survivors, it should be taken as such. (It’s also worth noting that some of the details that the Post itself reported seem to have been incorrect, and that it’s apparently been editing its own post without publishing corrections, which doesn’t exactly speak for their grasp of journalistic ethics, either.)
There’s gonna be an awful lot of fallout from this story, and it’s going to be ugly. There will be people who argue that this story, like the whole Conor Oberst fiasco earlier this year, exposes the problems with believing victims and placing the burden of proof on the accused to prove the crime didn’t happen. But that’s never really been the case, and it’s not the case here: the point is to start from a place of trust, and to believe the victim unless there’s a damn good reason not to do so. And it’s important to realize that as this case stands, no-one’s given us any such damn good reason. They’ve given us a three-paragraph note characterized by nebulous wording and apparent obfuscation.
It’s also important not to lose sight of the bigger picture here. Even if — if — this story turns out to be completely false, it’s not a get-out-of-jail-free card for UVA, or fraternity culture in general. The fact remains that on the whole, UVA’s handling of sexual assault cases has been dismal. The victim’s story was the centerpiece of Erdely’s article, but there was plenty of other reporting in there that remains unquestioned: that fraternity members are three times as likely to commit rape, for instance. That UVA’s culture of rape has been a problem for decades. That its sexual assault handling procedures are opaque and generally ineffective (of 38 reports made of sexual assault there last year, only nine were pursued, and only four resulted in “Sexual Misconduct Board hearings,” the outcome of which remain secret.) And shit, nobody’s questioning the godawful statistics on campus rape in general.
As the victim’s friend Alex Pinkelton told the Washington Post, “One of my biggest fears with these inconsistencies emerging is that people will be unwilling to believe survivors in the future. However, we need to remember that the majority of survivors who come forward are telling the truth.” Indeed. Indeed we do. And the fact that Rolling Stone appears to have made a comprehensive balls-up of that story doesn’t change that one little bit.