Sabrina Rubin Erdely was having a banner year. The Rolling Stone journalist came out with three excellent stories in 2014 that garnered a ton of attention—but none more so than "A Rape on Campus." The story, which currently has an insane 173,000 Facebook shares, began with the brutal gang rape of a student named "Jackie" by seven fraternity brothers at the University of Virginia in 2012. Later, Erdley probed into the reporting process for on-campus assaults and came back with some alarming news.
Besides getting attention, the November 19 article caused real-world change—much of it triggered by the horrific, hyper-specific details in the opening anecdote. Soon after the piece came out, UVA suspended all frats until January. University President Teresa Sullivan announced there would be a discussion about "our next steps in preventing sexual assault and sexual violence."
But now it turns out that Erdley might have been misled by the woman who made her career-making feature so powerful. So a horrific story about rape has turned into a bizarre parable about the perpetuation of misinformation in the media.
The Washington Post reported Friday that Phi Kappa Psi—the fraternity whose brothers allegedly raped Jackie—planned to issue a statement refuting "A Rape on Campus." That's probably what caused Rolling Stone's managing editor to issue a "note to our readers," which includes the following:
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. We were trying to be sensitive to the unfair shame and humiliation many women feel after a sexual assault and now regret the decision to not contact the alleged assaulters to get their account. We are taking this seriously and apologize to anyone who was affected by the story.
But where it gets weirder is that the Post has apparently deleted parts of its own story. The original story (about the Rolling Stone story) included the line: "The Post determined that the student Jackie named is not a member of Phi Kappa Psi and had never met her in person." Now there's a vague and possibly misleading explanation appended to the article. What's more, Jackie is now saying that she asked Erdley to remove her from the article, but that the journalist refused. The idea that a journalist might publish a story about an alleged rape victim without her consent is, needless to say, incredibly disturbing.
But all media fuckery aside, what's really sad is that one in five women are raped on college campuses, and only 1 percent of their rapists are punished. As a result of one enormous journalistic error, women who report rape—and the outlets that report on their stories—will now be under extra scrutiny. That's exactly what Anna Merlan over at Jezebel pointed out in a story that went up quickly after Rolling Stone's retraction. (And to add one more layer to the whole thing, she made that point in her own retraction about a post in which she openly mocked people questioning the veracity of "A Rape on Campus.")
What a mess.
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