The Perils of Reporting on Rape

Photographer: Getty Images

Since evidence began piling up that Rolling Stone’s explosive account of an alleged gang rape at University of Virginia was, at best, poorly reported and, at worst, fabricated, I’ve had several fraught conversations about it with other journalists. We stand around nervously, asking, “But how do you—? Why wouldn’t they—? Would that really—?” before admitting how thankful we are that we aren’t the ones who screwed up.

Rape is a hard crime to prove, and it’s one surrounded by prejudices and misconceptions. It is difficult for the police and schools to grapple with, and it’s hard for journalists to write about accurately. I know because I’ve reported on it.

In April, I wrote a story for Bloomberg Businessweek about a group of young women who are filing Title IX and Clery complaints against colleges for mishandling sexual assault cases. I spent about five months interviewing roughly a dozen college women around the country. They told me harrowing accounts of the most humiliating, degrading, awful moments of their lives. Some of them were so angry they shouted. Some were quiet and calm. One cried.

I found most of these women though End Rape on Campus (EROC), the organization I wrote about in the article. Additional students, who said they belonged to a private Facebook group for college victims of sexual assault, had heard what I was writing about and contacted me. “I hear you’re looking for people to talk to,” they’d say. “I’d like to tell you my story.”

I listened. I asked them to tell me as much or as little as they wanted, on or off the record, and then we would go from there. Sometimes I asked things they didn’t want to answer. Only one woman told me the name of her rapist. Of all the women I spoke to, she was the only one who had filed a police report immediately after it happened. Many months later, the man pled guilty to a lesser charge. His name was on court documents.

I believed every woman who told me her story. I believe most people I talk with for any story, no matter the topic, unless they have an obvious reason to lie. That doesn’t mean I don’t seek outside proof and double-check claims. That’s what journalists do.

For a topic such as this, finding the truth, whatever it is, can be pretty difficult. Traumatic events can be hard to recall and even harder to express coherently. And when the story you’re talking about—punctuated by student honor council meetings and discussions with university administrators—stretches over several months or years, it can be hard to keep track of everything that was said—and when.

On top of that, there are so many probing questions people want to ask an alleged victim. How did the two people know each other? Had they hooked up before? Were they drinking? In many cases, they were assuredly drinking: We’re talking about college students. Sexual assault survivors, as they prefer to be called, don’t like being asked these questions because they feel—for good reason—that in asking them, people are looking for reasons to discredit them.

That’s not what I wanted to do, and I didn’t want to make them feel that way. But if those details could help people understand what happened, I had to ask.

Some requests for proof, or seemingly skeptical questions, made things a little awkward. There’s no manual for how to go about something like this, and I often worried that I was asking the wrong thing, asking too much, or not asking enough. While I needed to be accurate in my reporting, I didn’t want to re-traumatize someone by making them retell their stories unless I knew I really needed it.

When I talked to the women, I didn’t immediately ask about alcohol or how quickly they said “no.” But as I decided which women I wanted to write about, I did ask those questions. And more. I explained that I had to. As I do for all stories, I asked to see any proof they had.

Sofie, the University of California-Berkeley student whose experience begins the article, was assaulted while on a school-affiliated retreat. Through the club website and her social media activity, I figured out what organization it was and confirmed that the trip happened when and where she said. At one point in her story, a friend and fellow club member got involved. I talked to that person, who told me the exact same story. I had Sofie show me the e-mails she had received from the school.

A second source attending a different school told me that she was so upset after she was attacked that her grades dropped and she lost her scholarship. I had her send me a copy of her transcript.

In the course of reporting the story, I asked a lot of questions the women may have resented. I remember one conversation with an EROC activist about false reports of rape. She said that this has happened, but I could tell she was wary that I even asked. (Numbers on false reporting are hard to pinpoint; most experts I talked with put them between 2 percent and 10 percent).

A lot of big, complicated questions should be asked about this topic. Why are so few instances of rape reported to the police? (A Bureau of Justice Statistics study issued this month puts it at about 20 percent for college students). Why do those reported so rarely result in convictions? Should schools be deciding the guilt or innocence of someone who has been accused of a violent crime? If administrators know something happened, what is their responsibility to keep their students safe? Is there something about collegiate culture that we can or should change to make this happen less often? Something about the justice system? The military?

These aren’t abstract questions: They play out for real people in real situations in ways that really happen. In order to find answers and come up with a better system, we need an accurate picture of how things work now, no matter how uncomfortable talking about it may be.

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