The Rolling Stone story and campus sexual assault

Update: the full Columbia review is now available.

Libby Nelson has written an excellent editorial over at Vox about the importance of the upcoming Columbia School of Journalism Review of Rolling Stone’s partially-fabricated story ‘A Rape on Campus’:

Understanding what went wrong in the UVA story is crucial, and not just for journalists. Rolling Stone’s narrative might have been false, but campus sexual assault is still one of the most difficult problems in higher education. Solving it requires accurately understanding how common it is, and figuring out how to balance the interests of victims and the rights of the accused — all things Rolling Stone failed to do.

. . .

The Columbia Journalism School report is expected to focus less on Charlottesville and more on Rolling Stone: how an explosive, criminal allegation wasn’t given even cursory fact-checking before being published in a national magazine, and why the magazine reportedly kept Jackie in the story after she said she was traumatized and asked to no longer participate.

The central question in the Rolling Stone debacle — how do you trust victims of sexual assault while thoroughly investigating their stories? — matters to everyone because it’s not just about journalism.

It’s at the center of dealing with campus sexual assault. False rape reports, on campus and off, are rare. And while it’s not clear how widespread the problem of campus sexual assault is, the best available data (which is still very flawed) suggest it’s far too common.

At the same time, victims of sexual assault often face scrutiny when they come forward, with questions about what actually happened in their experience and whether an assault actually occurred.

Colleges have a tricky line to walk: they must be sensitive to the interests of sexual assault victims while ensuring that they’re not rushing to judgment. While complaints by students who feel their reports of sexual assault were mishandled are far more prevalent, colleges are also facing lawsuits from students who were expelled after being found responsible for sexual assault who say they were not guilty.

The Rolling Stone controversy is part of a larger debate about how campuses should balance their responsibility to students who have experienced sexual assault with their responsibility to protect students who are accused. Learning how, and why, the magazine failed to temper sensitivity with responsibility might help colleges and journalists alike strike that balance better in future.

Meanwhile, a former UVA undergraduate Jenny Wilkinson has written a powerful piece in the Sunday Review detailing her own experience with rape at UVA. Her attacker was found responsible by UVA, and his punishment was having a letter placed in his file. As the Vox editorial notes, whatever else was made up in the Rolling Stone story, it’s true that UVA has never expelled anyone for rape or sexual assault, though they have expelled 183 people for academic misconduct since 1998.

2 thoughts on “The Rolling Stone story and campus sexual assault

  1. As Wilkinson points out, UVA treats expulsion as the only punishment for academic misconduct. If I were a faculty member there, I would push for them to punish sexual assault in the same way.

    In a different direction, neither Libby Nelson in this article nor Sabrina Rubin Erdely in her apology mention the following: early on the morning of November 20, four students vandalized the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house, including breaking several windows. They anonymously claimed credit in a letter submitted that afternoon to the campus newspaper, The Cavalier Daily. After the incident, the fraternity members moved out for the duration of the semester.

    These students were falsely accused, but they were not harmed by a disciplinary process. They were terrorized in the night from their home by other students. That ugly incident is an integral part of what happened at UVA over the last 6 months. Erdely has to acknowledge it.

  2. That’s a good point, Peter, and it was disappointing to see that Rubin Erderly didn’t include any specific mention of the harm done to those young men in her apology.

    Rolling Stone continues to spin the narrative around this as one in which their primary error was being ‘overly sensitive’ toward a presumed rape victim. But when you read the Columbia report, there is so much more than that going on. They put phrases as direct quotations in an article when they had never interviewed or spoken with the people who supposedly said those things. They put a a huge amount of allegation about a specific, identifiable group of young men – even if they didn’t name any names – without ever speaking to those men (or anyone who knew those men) or doing even basic fact checking. That’s not being ‘overly sensitive’. That’s just pathetic journalism. And it’s pathetic journalism that did tremendous harm to all sorts of people – rape victims and the falsely accused alike.

    It really seems as though RS was determined to find the most salacious, headline capturing story they could. And once they’d found it, they didn’t make much effort to investigate it.

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