Lauren McCarthy: Rolling Stone's disservice

By Lauren McCarthy, Columnist
Published December 9, 2014

Late last week, when The Washington Post began questioning the attention-grabbing and now infamous Rolling Stone piece, “A Rape on Campus,” the little progress society had made by way of justice for victims of sexual assault took one step forward, and about eight steps back.

Published online by the magazine Nov. 19 and appearing in the December issue, the Rolling Stone piece was written by Sabrina Rubin Erdely, investigative long-form narrative journalist and contributing editor. Her piece detailed a brutal gang rape of a woman referred to as Jackie during a party at the University of Virginia chapter of Phi Kappa Psi’s fraternity house in 2012. Erdely’s piece also emphasized, in large part, the university’s failure to respond to this alleged assault, as well as highlighting the school’s troubling history of indifference to many other instances of alleged sexual crimes.

A few weeks later, however, The Washington Post reported that officials from Phi Kappa Psi had been working closely with the police and concluded that the allegations were untrue. Among other details, the fraternity said there was no event at the house the night of the alleged attack. A group of Jackie’s close friends had also begun to doubt the account, noting that the details of the attack had changed significantly over time. Rolling Stone’s editors apologized to readers for discrepancies in the story, issuing a statement and posting it on their website. Monday, The New York Times editorial board published a piece claiming, “It is not yet clear whether the discrepancies between Jackie’s account and reporting by The Washington Post, among other news outlets, mean that the story was only superficially inaccurate or substantially false.”

Putting the breadth of the discrepancies aside, the byline at the top of the article should have perhaps been the first indication of a potentially unsound report. Erdely focuses her writings extensively about persons who have alleged rape and bullying, and her personal website attests that several of her articles are in development as Hollywood films.

In 2011, Erdely authored a story for Rolling Stone about child abuse within the Roman Catholic Church in Philadelphia. As an adult, the victim — referred to as Billy Doe — recounted his abuse and accused his attackers of a high-level conspiracy that drove him to become a reclusive drug addict. These claims resulted in criminal charges leading to the imprisonment of two church employees and a major civil suit against the church, though reportedly, the conviction of one of the jailed church employees has since been overturned and new trials ordered for the other two individuals.

Concern has been raised that either Erdely’s journalistic veracity may not be entirely intact, or as a veteran, award-winning journalist her discretion when choosing sources is flawed. More important, however, are the devastating consequences of her incomplete reporting.

One would hope that in publishing the article, Rolling Stone intended to provoke a much-needed, national conversation about the prevalence and dire consequences of rape on university campuses. Instead, the issue has been entirely sidestepped and replaced with discussions of journalistic integrity and responsible reporting. Instead of spurring the necessary discourse for legitimized change, Erdely and Rolling Stone have done victims of sexual assault an enormous disservice.

Now, survivors of assault and rape may fear that when or if they tell their stories, they will also fall victim to the example set by Rolling Stone’s increasingly fictitious article. Survivors may struggle to see journalists as advocates, assuming that his or her first preference might be to exploit their hurt in hopes of having another piece repurposed into a “Hollywood film.” The piece conditioned an inherently skeptical society to further doubt victims’ reports and question their intentions in sharing their story. For the future, “A Rape on Campus” is now the all-too-convenient scapegoat for those who refuse to accept the increasingly prevalent statistics and overwhelming personal accounts that are not fabricated.

For me, however, the most chilling detail of “A Rape on Campus” that now remains is that this piece was written by a woman. In a disservice to the members of her own gender — the statistically higher victims of rape and sexual assault — Erdely has preserved an environment in which women are fearful of speaking out against their attacker, for fear that they too will be accused of simply “crying rape.” She has reinforced a culture that is already prone to be disbelieving of women.

It is insulting that another woman, with the privilege of speaking to a national audience would forego achieving proper representation of her peers, presumably for the sake of her own personal or professional gain. Erdely seems to have cared so little about accurately and precisely communicating Jackie’s story that she failed to interview the accused — in essence, she failed to even attempt at objectively uncovering both sides of the story.

Erdely held the profound opportunity to stimulate a meaningful discourse concerning sexual violence and assault on college campuses, but in her perhaps misguided execution, she has succeeded only in crippling the conversation. It is rare today that a survivor of sexual assault is brave enough to come forward in such an unforgiving social climate, and it is a shame that the opportunity was squandered. Erdely abused her privilege, and has failed both as a journalist and as an advocate of women's rights. Nonetheless, it is my hope as both a woman and a member of the media that this issue will be approached by journalists in the future with not only integrity, but also conviction and the utmost care.

Lauren McCarthy can be reached at laurmc@umich.edu.