I don’t know Jackie. I don’t even know her real name. I don’t know what happened to her in a UVA fraternity house. But here’s what I do know: Rolling Stone just threw her under the bus for its own mistakes. And we shouldn’t be surprised.
On Nov. 19, Rolling Stone magazine published an account of a brutal gang rape of a freshman woman -- whom the writer called Jackie -- and UVA’s subsequent inaction. Soon after, critics eager to discount the victim's all-too-familiar story questioned the writer’s decision not to contact Jackie’s assailants -- which the magazine later claimed was an attempt to protect the survivor from retaliation. Then, today, Rolling Stone published a quasi-retraction of the entire article, citing “discrepancies” in Jackie's story.
Rather than apologizing for its own journalistic and editorial mistakes, Rolling Stone blamed Jackie for its errors. The problem, according to the magazine’s note, is not that it failed to check certain details, but that its “trust in [Jackie] was misplaced.” One need not read between the lines to get the ugly message: It was her fault, not ours!
Reporting on gender-based violence is always tricky. I help run a national campaign by and for student survivors, and I know classic symptoms of trauma include memory loss and inconsistent narratives, presenting challenges to journalists. Plus, the stakes for reporting are so much higher when confirming a story that may trigger violent retaliation against a survivor.
Though suggestions that she pressured the student into sticking with the story are deeply worrisome, the writer was rightly sensitive to Jackie’s preferences not to provoke her assailants.
But in addition to my role as an advocate for survivors, I’m also an editor for a popular blog, and I don’t think basic fact-checking is disrespectful. Instead, it’s a fundamental duty -- not only to readers, but to the survivor -- to make sure that, in sharing a story publicly, he or she doesn’t face exactly the kind of move to discredit now aimed at Jackie. Without contacting the assailants, Rolling Stone could have done more to either confirm now-questioned details, like the date of the assault, or frame the discussion to rely less on Jackie's account.
People make mistakes, and journalists are no exception. Rolling Stone could have lived up to its errors. Instead, it chose a convenient scapegoat: Jackie can’t publicly defend herself and, merely by claiming to have been raped, she is a lightening rod for skepticism. The magazine, then, pointed its finger at a young woman who cannot point back.
Rolling Stone knew it could get away with that, too. Everyone loves to doubt the victim. She is never good enough for us. By casting aspersions not just on details of Jackie’s story but on her character, on her trustworthiness, the publication called to mind the trope of the woman who cried rape. This specter is found everywhere from the Bible to the Model Penal Code to the comment section of the Huffington Post. Usually, she is cast as the scorned lover eager for revenge, but, in whatever form, she performs the comforting work of reassuring us that sexual violence isn’t real.
In so prioritizing its name over its ethics, Rolling Stone just reinforced long-standing obstacles to survivors seeking support and undermined the movement to end campus gender-based violence. Publishing the article in the first place suggests Rolling Stone wants to expose the problem of campus sexual assault, but their handling of their own mistake does just the opposite, sweeping victims back into the shadows.
Much of our work over these past few years has been to break through the defensive disbelief with which most people react to stories of assault and abuse. Not only do Americans not believe systematic gender-based violence occurs, but they don’t want to believe it. They will cling to any source that confirms their rosy view of Potemkin equality – hence the popularity of the scorned woman trope.
Thanks to dozens of survivors like Angie Epifano and Emma Sulkowicz, who bravely exposed deeply personal stories at great risk, we’ve made some progress. Now, however, Rolling Stone’s letter will be the first citation for every rape denialist. They screwed up and now students will pay the price.
Here’s the thing: Campus violence is very real. The national effort to address these harms has been heavily reported, but the rape, harassment, abuse, and assault started long before journalists turned their attention to our lives. They occur now whether or not you believe Jackie or any other student. But I hope you do.
If we spent all the energy we expend questioning survivors instead preventing violence, just imagine the impact we could have.