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Rolling Stone's Rape Story Fails Victims

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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Rolling Stone's story about an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia appears to be falling apart. The fraternity released a statement today rebutting specific aspects of the story. Friends of Jackie's on campus, including rape survivors, are now also questioning her story. Rolling Stone has issued a not-quite-retraction:

Last month, Rolling Stone published a story titled "A Rape on Campus" by Sabrina Rubin Erdely, which described a brutal gang rape of a woman named Jackie at a University of Virginia fraternity house; the university's failure to respond to this alleged assault -- and the school's troubling history of indifference to many other instances of alleged sexual assaults. The story generated worldwide headlines and much soul-searching at UVA. University president Teresa Sullivan promised a full investigation and also to examine the way the school responds to sexual assault allegations.

Because of the sensitive nature of Jackie's story, we decided to honor her request not to contact the man she claimed orchestrated the attack on her nor any of the men she claimed participated in the attack for fear of retaliation against her. In the months Erdely spent reporting the story, Jackie neither said nor did anything that made Erdely, or Rolling Stone's editors and fact-checkers, question Jackie's credibility. Her friends and rape activists on campus strongly supported Jackie's account. She had spoken of the assault in campus forums. We reached out to both the local branch and the national leadership of the fraternity where Jackie said she was attacked. They responded that they couldn't confirm or deny her story but had concerns about the evidence. 

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.

This may not be the biggest journalism pullback ever -- I'd say that the Bush national guard memos still hold the top spot, at least for a single story. But this certainly ranks high on the list. The story started off a couple of weeks ago as a blockbuster expose that forced a major institutional reaction from UVA; it now seems very possible that it will go down with the 8-year-old heroin addict and the collected works of Stephen Glass in the annals of journalistic hoaxes.

As it happened, I finished a piece yesterday on the problems with the story. This morning I asked my editor to hold it, because there seemed to be some news ready to break, one way or another. I thought about canning the story when the news came out, but actually, I think that it's more important than ever to explore what was wrong with this story and why it should never have been published.

On Monday, I briefly noted a post by Richard Bradley, pointing to some potential issues with the Rolling Stone story. Since I wrote that post, other reporters have also highlighted some very serious issues with it. I've read media reporter Paul Farhi of the Washington Post's two very good pieces on the reporting, the concerns raised by Judith Shulevitz of the New Republic, columns by Robby Soave of Reason, and a deeply troubling reported piece by Hanna Rosin and Allison Benedikt at Slate. I've also listened to the evasive interview that author Sabrina Rubin Erdely did with Rosin for a Slate podcast, in which she repeatedly dodges specific questions with general remarks that seem designed to sound as if she's answering in the affirmative, without actually doing so.

After all this, I too had concerns: Erdely seemed to be backing up her story with assertions that she found the rape story credible, rather than with details of the reporting she did to attempt to ensure that it was. As Erik Wemple of the Washington Post said, "For the sake of Rolling Stone’s reputation, Sabrina Rubin Erdely had better be the country’s greatest judge of character."

The criticisms of this story fell into two categories: critiques of the story itself, which suggested that it might be a hoax, and critiques of the reporting. So I'm going to deal with them separately. First I'm going to talk about the potential issues with victim Jackie's story, and why the red flags it raised should have made Erdely very cautious about going to press without more corroboration than she had. Then I'll tackle what I think Erdely should have done, and why she, and a few other writers, are wrong to insist that this is a side issue.

(Disclosure: For this story, I attempted to contact Sabrina Rubin Erdely; Sean Woods, her editor at Rolling Stone; and Claire Kaplan of the UVA Women's Center. None of them responded. I succeeded in reaching Melissa Bruno at Wenner Media, who referred me to Will Dana, the managing editor of Rolling Stone. In response to a detailed list of questions, he replied that they were doing a follow-up that should answer the many questions reporters had been asking.)

So to start with, Jackie's story: It's horrific. It's easy to see why the author chose to lead with the story. It's not one of the muddy "intoxicated woman/intoxicated man, was-it-rape-or-regret?" narratives that so often feature in stories about campus sexual assault. You have a young freshman who has barely taken a couple of sips from her drink, led upstairs by a boy she works with to be brutally raped for three hours in a pitch-black room, with shards of glass from a broken coffee table pressing into her back. So it's unsurprising that this story became the spine of the narrative in the Rolling Stone piece. It's almost cinematic in its horrifying detail.

I'm not going to summarize that narrative here; you should go read the account for yourself, if you haven't. These are the biggest questions that were raised, most of them in the articles above or their comments sections:

  1. Three hours on broken glass should have left Jackie with wounds, even if it was tempered glass; those little marbles can still have sharp edges, and lying on top of them for three hours, with someone else's weight on top of you, seems like it would result in some bleeding -- for the brothers, as well as for her.
  2. Jackie said that she was led into a pitch-black room, then grabbed by someone she couldn't see. Later, she somehow knows that there are nine guys, and she recognizes one of her attackers in the low light. Of course, her eyes may have adjusted. The larger problem is that pitch-black rooms aren't pitch black when there's a door open, unless they're the size of a high school gymnasium; even a small amount of light from the hall should have illuminated the room enough for her to see the eight waiting guys when she walked in. Movies sometimes have what I've heard called "the corner of infinite darkness" where an attacker can hide, but lighting directors spend hours setting up and shielding their lights to get that effect; it's hard to achieve naturally, as you can see yourself by opening the door from a lighted hallway into an otherwise black room. There might be a few hiding spots; there are unlikely to be eight.
  3. Despite the fact that she had not been drinking, she passes out at the end of the rape and wakes up in an empty room. Was this blood loss? Did she hit her head? Dissociative amnesia? Why did the brothers leave the girl they'd just brutally raped alone in a room? Didn't they think she might scream?
  4. When she goes downstairs, she calls her friends, who try to persuade her not to report the rape or go to the hospital because they'll never be allowed in a frat party again. Do the Phi Kappa Psi brothers have spies at the hospital who report on the friends who accompany raped girls there? That seems like extreme paranoia, even for college students.
    4a.  Later, other friends downplay this sensational crime, even to the extent of telling her that she should have enjoyed the opportunity to have sex with a bunch of hot fraternity guys. College students are often callow and immature in dealing with the problems of others, and even the more mature often get impatient with loved ones who seem trapped in some trauma, but Jackie seems to have a lot of incredibly bad friends around her.
  5. Jackie declined to go to the hospital or make a formal accusation. The story is fully told for the first time when a dean calls her to talk about why she is flunking three classes.
  6. The story is clearly set up as involving pledges in some sort of initiation ritual. "Then they egged him on: 'Don't you want to be a brother?' 'We all had to do it, so you do, too.' " The party where this took place was allegedly given on Sept. 28. But the fraternity in question rushes in the spring; everyone in that room should already have been a brother, unless they were involving potential future pledges in their major felony. 
  7. Sometime afterward, the brother who led her to be gang raped tells her he had a great time and asks why she's avoiding him. As Rosin and Benedikt note, "That’s not expected behavior even by the standards of rapists. That’s psychotic." It's a remark I'd expect to hear in a story of a date rape, not a gang rape.
  8. Erdely reports that after Jackie became a campus anti-rape activist, she was hit in the face with a beer bottle that broke. However, this appears to have left only a bruise near her eye, not lacerations or a medical report for having glass removed from her eye. People who confabulate for attention often have a series of amazing things happen to them, not just one; this should have made Erdely cautious.
  9. Gang raping someone who can identify you is a pretty bad plan on the part of the brothers, especially on a bed of glass. How could they know she wouldn't walk out of that room and straight into the police station?
  10. Rosin and Benedikt report a friend saying that Jackie's reaction was "extreme" when Erdely pressed her for the identities of her assailants -- "meaning that Jackie became so terrified that she reconsidered going public with her story, even anonymously." A source who has an extreme reaction when you try to identify people who might deny their story is an unfortunately classic staple of stories that aren't true.

These are all red flags, which Erdely needed to resolve. But contra some of the commenters I've seen out there, they didn't simply prove the story was false. Print stories always have to economize on detail, because you only have so much space. Moreover, stories often get garbled in transmission. There could simply have been missing details that would resolve some of these apparent problems: that the brothers moved her off the glass after the first one got it in his knees, that "Drew" playfully put his hands over her eyes as they walked into the room. Sometimes people do luckily escape injury from flying glass, or there may have been lacerations the article doesn't mention. Many of the discrepancies fall into this category: things that don't quite make sense as written, but could with a few extra details.

Others fall into the category of "I'd never do that." I'd never commit a cold-blooded gang rape, or fail to report same to the police. I'd never say such terrible things to a friend. Unfortunately, your imagination is a very poor guide to what other people will do. For that matter, your imagination is a very poor guide to what you will do. A lot more people imagined themselves, say, becoming a part of the Underground Railroad than actually did so when the chips were down.

One personal story: When I was in college, I was the victim of someone who stole a bunch of money from me. I knew who it was, and I didn't report it to anyone except a couple of friends. Why not? Years later, I'm not sure I can say. I can cite a deeply ingrained aversion to asking for help from authorities, which is certainly a part of my character, or point out that the accusation would have been hard to prove, even though, for tedious reasons I won't go into, I was quite certain who had committed the theft. But that could just be post-hoc rationalization; what I actually remember is that it happened, and I didn't report it. Instead, I stopped buying food for about a week. And I wasn't even faced with having to rehearse hours of unimaginably gruesome trauma over and over to investigators.

So I find it extremely easy to believe that a girl stumbled out of a fraternity house, bruised and humiliated, and just wanted to go home and pretend it never happened. But even if I couldn't, that wouldn't be evidence of much of anything, except the contours of my imagination. People do crazy, insane, unaccountable things all the time -- if you found it hard to believe that fraternity brothers committed a premeditated gang rape, why was it so easy to imagine that a girl made up a rape story to recount to a national magazine, where she risked humiliating exposure? Whichever you believe, the explanation for this seemingly insane behavior is the same: Sometimes, people aren't very good at counting the consequences of their own actions.

However, while I certainly don't think that these problems meant that the story was obviously untrue, a giant collection of red flags like this makes me very cautious. When you have these sorts of issues in a story, you need to do your utmost to check it out. It's not enough to get corroboration that the alleged victim told the same story to other people at a later date, which is all Erdely seems to have done. Anyone reporting this story should press for inconsistencies with the victim, and do their utmost to talk to the people who were actually there that night -- the friends, and the alleged rapists, insofar as they can be identified.

I understand how hard that is. If someone has been raped, treating them as if they might be lying is adding insult to unforgivable injury. Unfortunately, that's exactly what a journalist printing a felony accusation has a responsibility to do. And I want to digress a moment and talk about why we journalists have this responsibility.

Investigative journalism can be an amazing tool for exposing injustice and righting wrongs. But journalists who do this kind of work have to be on their guard, because unless they are very careful to interrogate their stories, the medium will have a tendency to select for stories that aren't true.

The best stories, the ones that result in institutional shakeups and journalism prizes, are clear-cut stories about very rare events. Think a presidential administration conducting illegal break-ins, or a president who was provably AWOL from his military duty during Vietnam. A drug company hiding evidence that its product caused fatal liver damage, a book exposing gruesome abuses at a women's lunatic asylum, or a book showing that the prevalence of guns in early America was a gigantic myth. A reporter with an improbable gift for finding and telling illuminating stories about finance and money, and one with an improbable gift for finding amazing stories about shocking events in war zones.

As followers of the form know, about half the stories I've named were true blockbusters; about half of those turned out to be falsified by either the author or the author's sources. Terrible stories really do happen and are exposed by reporters. But some of the most amazing scoops have turned out to be fabricated, and I think there is a reason for that.

As any journalist or cop or lawyer or academic can tell you, reality is usually complicated. Eyewitnesses are unreliable, narratives are cloudy, the data you want is missing or never existed, people seeking money or power have pushed deep into legal gray zones without quite breaking the law. It's not that clearer stories don't exist -- Bernie Madoff committed a very clear-cut and mediagenic crime. But those stories are hard to find, because the perpetrators are at pains to conceal their actions.

Fabricators can create exactly the sort of story that becomes front-page news: an obvious and sympathetic victim, a clearly identified perpetrator who obviously broke the law, vivid details to hold the listener's attention. They don't need to backtrack and say "Oh, wait, no, that happened three weeks earlier" the way that real witnesses often do, or shamefacedly confess, when confronted, that they maybe left out a few parts of the story that didn't put them in the most flattering light.  In other words, they can give us exactly the sort of story that can get us a prize, because they aren't constrained by the often banal and frequently ambiguous details of anything that actually happened. The very reason people like Stephen Glass and Jack Kelley were so successful was that lies generally make better copy than reality. 

I'm not saying that most of the amazing scoops that get printed are false. On the contrary. But it is true that journalists get offered many, many amazing scoops that simply won't stand up to scrutiny. We keep them out of the news stream by carefully checking the stories for inconsistencies and offering the accused the opportunity to respond. Thankfully, fabrications frequently reveal themselves as questionable when you try to corroborate the details -- often because these oft-rehearsed tales are carefully set up to be completely impossible to check, and the source disappears when you press. There's also a reason that so many of the worst fabrications we know about were created by journalists, who knew exactly what they had to do to get the story through the system.

Unfortunately, reporting by others suggests that Erdely didn't do one of the basic things that reporters do to try to keep fabrications or exaggerations out of our stories: Check with the other side. It now seems clear that her story has always been essentially a single-source story; she spoke to Jackie, and people who heard the story from Jackie, none of whom turn out to have pressed Jackie for such details as the names of the accused. According to the Washington Post, when Erdely did press, Jackie tried to back out:

In July, Renda introduced Jackie to Sabrina Rubin Erdely, the Rolling Stone writer who was on assignment to write about sexual violence on college campuses. Overwhelmed from sitting through interviews with the writer, Jackie said she asked Erdely to be taken out of the article. She said Erdely refused and Jackie was told that the article would go forward regardless.

Jackie said she finally relented and agreed to participate on the condition that she be able to fact-check her parts in the story, which she said Erdely accepted. Erdely said in an e-mail message that she was not immediately available to comment Friday morning.

That doesn't necessarily mean the story is false; it's easy to see why a rape victim wouldn't want to confront her attackers, even by proxy. But even if you think the story is almost certainly true, the correct response in this situation is to regretfully drop the story and focus on someone else, not to publish major felony accusations without attempting to contact the accused. Every good journalist has dropped at least a few stories when it becomes clear that he or she couldn't verify enough details to be confident, and it's really tough to have to drop a great story -- or, worse, an important story that you think is probably true -- after you've put a lot of work into it. It still has to be done.

When Jackie tried to pull out, the red lights should have been flashing in Erdely's mind, with klaxons sounding warnings that she might be dealing with a student who fabricated or exaggerated a story, for attention or for some other reason, and hadn't realized that when she told this story to a major magazine reporter, she was inviting a level of scrutiny that her story could not withstand. Instead, Erdely seems to have adopted the "ask no questions" approach of community activists. On a UVA-focused Facebook page, a woman who seems to be Claire Kaplan, of UVA's Women's Center, writes:

The survivor in the frat rape did NOT want anything done. Take this story with a grain of salt. She's been irreparably harmed by this story, as the reporter included comments that were given as "off the record" and then she published them. Now we are left to pick up the pieces. She lied to the survivors and she ambushed the other folks she interviewed. She was not interested in true investigative reporting, she just wanted her byline with a sensational story.

Later in the same thread, she says:

They aren't disappointed in the fact that the story is now public. I believe it was more about how their comments about Dean Eramo in particular were taken out of context as well as other comments about friends' reactions. Part of the issue here is that reporters needs to tread lightly when interviewing survivors of trauma so as not to exacerbate their sense of betrayal.

Rosin and Benedikt's reporting suggests that Kaplan's attitude about questioning the stories of rape survivors is common among the campus activist community:

What became clear from talking to Jackie’s supporters at UVA is that the community of victim advocates operates by a very specific code. “The first thing as a friend we must say is, ‘I believe you and I am here to listen,’ ” says Brian Head, president of UVA’s all-male sexual assault peer education group One in Four. Head and others believe that questioning a victim is a form of betrayal, because it will make her feel judged and all the more reluctant to ever speak about what happened. None of the people we spoke to had asked Jackie who the men were, and in fact none of them had any idea. They did not press her on any details about the incident.

“A lot of the reason why we aren’t questioning Jackie urgently about who the names are or anything like that is because our role as advocates and friends is really just to support the survivor,” says Alexandria Pinkleton, another member of One Less and a friend of Jackie’s who was also quoted in the Rolling Stone story. “If she doesn’t want to give us the names, that’s not something were going to press her for." This is a point of tension between Erdely and the activists, one that is apparent in her conclusion. Erdely blames the UVA administration, “which chose not to act on her allegations in any way.” The activists, however, think the administration was correct not to pressure Jackie into pressing charges before she was ready.

Pinkleton told the Washington Post that she now feels she was misled. Others echo her concerns:

A group of Jackie’s close friends, who are sex assault awareness advocates at U-Va., said they believe something traumatic happened to Jackie but have come to doubt her account. They said details have changed over time, and they have not been able to verify key points of the story in recent days. A name of an alleged attacker that Jackie provided to them for the first time this week, for example, turned out to be similar to the name of a student who belongs to a different fraternity, and no one by that name has been a member of Phi Kappa Psi.

As I've written before, I understand that organizations dedicated to helping survivors face a tough choice -- between pressing the victim to lodge an official complaint that could take a rapist off the streets and helping a survivor who may feel too traumatized to face an official investigation. I understand, too, the temptation to embrace this ethic as a reporter when confronted with a victim who is telling you a story of unimaginable horror. But for the reasons that I've outlined above, we can't do that. It's not our job to force a victim to go to the police. But it is our job to do the best we can to verify a story before we print it, even if that causes the victims more pain. We should do everything we can to minimize the discomfort of being questioned, and the fear of confronting your attacker, even directly. But we can't forgo it, unless we also forgo printing the story.

I've seen a number of people defend Rolling Stone's decision, including, to my shock, some journalists. "If a reporter were doing a story about a university accused of failing to address the mugging or robbery of a student, that reporter would not be expected to interview the alleged mugger or robber," they say. Or "They'd just have denied it. Why bother?" Or even "she didn't really identify anyone, so there's no duty to check."

This last is simply false; I've had people sending me the names of potential attackers for several days now. (I was preparing to contact a couple of them when the Post story dropped.) Those names were available in multiple places on the Web and could have severely damaged the men in question when they popped up on a Google search.

As for the rest, the answer is that however remote the chance, there is always a possibility that the alleged attacker will say, "I was in Tampa on the weekend in question, and here is my credit card receipt for the gas I bought at a local convenience store, my e-ticket, time-stamped pictures of me at the Big Cat Rescue there, and the phone number of three people who can testify that I was with them the whole time." This being about what now seems to be happening.

So you contact the accused to verify that they exist, and you give them a chance to tell their side of the story. Of course it's true that you don't have to wait until you've tracked down the mugger that fled the scene before you report that a mugging happened. But if someone told me that they had been mugged by someone who was known to them, then yes, I would be expected to try to contact the alleged assailant before I reported their age, where they worked and what fraternal organization they belonged to.

This does not mean that reporters should start out believing that all alleged rape victims lie, or that most alleged rape victims lie. We have no idea how many rape accusations are false, and we probably never will, but it's not all of them, and I'm pretty sure it's not the majority, either, no matter what apocryphal "friend of a friend" opinions say on the Internet. But we do know that some rape accusations are false, including ones that became major media events and ones that put innocent men in jail. We don't verify because it's likely that a rape victim is lying to us; we verify because there is some chance, however small, and "some chance" that you will erroneously print a felony accusation is too high.

Nor am I very convinced by the people -- including Erdely -- who have argued that focusing on Jackie's story is getting us "sidetracked" from "the real story," which is about the rape culture at UVA and the slothful institutional reaction to Jackie's story. The story was headlined "A Rape on Campus." The first thousand words are devoted to Jackie's horrifying story, and much of the rest of the story is devoted to Jackie's descent into depression and her interactions with the deans. If the story is so irrelevant to the real point of the article, then it should have been pulled out when the victim refused to provide details that would have permitted the author to contact the accused for comment.

But of course, if Jackie's story had been pulled out, the article wouldn't have received anything like the attention it got. The story was so electric precisely because it was about the premeditated gang rape of an innocent girl, in a way that suggested that such callous and criminal treatment of women was commonly viewed by the university community as not really worthy of comment, much less punishment -- and that this view afflicted even the administrators charged with protecting students from rape. Without that element, this would have been a dull-but-worthy chin-stroker about institutional bureaucratic processes that probably wouldn't have been shared 170,000 times on Facebook.

What's more, the way the story was written, and the way that Erdely responded to early interviews, suggests that she was aware that her failure to find the accused -- or at least the two boys who could clearly be identified -- was a problem. The Rolling Stone piece is beautifully written. Many journalists would happily give at least a small digit, maybe a toe, to be able to produce a story like that. But it is rather vague about who, exactly, she talked to. In interviews with Slate and the Washington Post, she repeatedly declined to specify whether she had spoken to "Drew," or if she even knew who he was. When Rosin pressed her, she kept giving vague answers that implied she had done more reporting than we now know she did.

Rape is horrible, and it is indeed a problem on college campuses. I applaud the reporters who press for justice in these cases, the activists who are trying to curtail this criminal behavior, and the administrators who are looking for better ways to protect their students. Stories like Jackie's should certainly be reported, and so should the less extreme, more common, but still horrible attacks that countless women live through every year. Administrations should refer these cases to police when they happen on campus, and the government should prosecute them as vigorously as possible.

But the very seriousness of the accusations, the very horror of rape, means that the reporter must try to get all sides of the story before it goes to print. The failure to do so did not mean that Jackie's story was a hoax -- but it adds plausibility to the suggestions that it might be. And as writer Caitlin Flanigan told Rosin and Benedikt, "If this turns out to be a hoax, it is going to turn the clock back ... 30 years.” Sabrina Rubin Erdely should have done everything she could to foreclose it. She didn't. Her editors didn't. 

So now the next time a rape victim tells her story to a journalist, they will both be trying to reach an audience that remembers the problems with this article, and the Duke lacrosse case, and wonders if any of these stories are ever true. That inference will be grotesquely false, but it is the predictable result of accepting sensational stories without carefully checking. The greatest damage this article has done is not to journalism, or even to Rolling Stone. It is to the righteous fight for rape victims everywhere.

  1. Reason employs my husband, Peter Suderman.

  2. I am paraphrasing multiple people I have read, not quoting directly.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net