“A Rape on Campus”: My Reaction to the Retraction
It was announced this past Sunday that the magazine Rolling Stone has officially retracted a controversial article it published in November about a brutal gang rape that supposedly took place on the University of Virginia campus at a frat party. For those unfamiliar with the details of this story, I would direct you to this New York Times piece about the retraction. As a journalism student who has followed this story from the very beginning before any controversy arose, I found this announcement to be disappointing. This is the sad aftermath of a high-profile story about an important issue crumbling because of professional incompetence.
The central issue here, one which continues to baffle me with no explanation for it, is why Rolling Stone would trust the word of one source, who was offering a first person account of a horrific incident nonetheless, as gospel, without talking to any others? One of the most basic tenants of journalism is that you need to verify your story with multiple sources, so why on earth would a major magazine like Rolling Stone ignore this most basic of rules? Their argument, that they were only trying to be respectful to Jackie, the girl at the center of the story, If Rolling Stone had bothered to reach out to either Jackie’s friends or the fraternity itself, which would be standard in most reports like this, the mess they are in right now could have been avoided entirely. I think Rolling Stone knew very well that they were playing with fire (given that college campus rape has been such a hot-button issue) and willfully decided to ignore basic journalism practices because this story was just too juicy for them to resist. I think Rolling Stone suspected that if they followed up Jackie’s account with her friends, they might have found out that her story was either a lie or a sensationalized exaggeration, as turned out to be the case, which would have defeated the story from the outset. I think Rolling Stone knew they were playing with fire and they ignored the risks; deciding to place more value on a juicy story than accurately reporting on of what is a gravely serious issue. They also mislead anybody who read the article into thinking they talked to all the sources they needed to, which goes beyond making mistakes into deliberate dishonesty.
The most disappointing thing about this article and the controversy surrounding it is that it will likely shade similar issues involving campus rape in a way that casts doubt on the legitimacy of the victim’s claim. Statistics have shown that in the vast majority of cases of rape or sexual assault, the victim is telling the truth, though their claims are often disregarded and not taken seriously. This Rolling Stone incident is an unfortunate exception to this, but it’s unfortunately a high-profile exception, which means that when people want to cry foul on rape victims in the future, they can hold this up as Exhibit A.