Rolling Stone and reporting on rape

Do we want this Rolling Stone story about Jackie to be truth or fiction?

If true, it means a young woman was brutalized, dehumanized, and ignored by a systemic rape culture on college campuses, particularly inside fraternities. The rape also becomes a potential catalyst for change on the local, state, and national levels to stop rape on college campuses.

If it’s fiction, it means a woman was spared the violence and torture of rape. But it also means that those who discount rape culture, and those in power with little-to-no interest in stopping that culture, will be able to say: “You see? I was right! Rape isn’t an issue.”

Rebecca Traister sums this up writing in The New Republic:

The dismantling of Erdely’s story—both by anti-feminist agonistes and by those genuinely dismayed by possible journalistic error—would mean that Jackie’s story of being beaten and raped by seven fraternity brothers will be dismissed, and that the reading public will be permitted to slip back into the comforting conviction that stories like Jackie’s aren’t real, that rapes like that don’t happen, that our system works, and that, of course, bitches lie.

To put any wind in the sails of anti-feminists and rape apologists is never good. It stifles and muffles feminism and anti-rape efforts.

Here’s Caitlin Flanagan, who investigated deplorable behavior systemic in fraternities, in this good Slate article:

…if the story doesn’t check out, “it is going to cause so much trouble in the area of reforming fraternity sexual assault, I can’t even tell you.”

…Flanagan has recently been invited to speak to a large gathering of fraternity advisers about addressing fraternity rape. Inviting her, she says, is a “huge opening” in their thinking. “But if this turns out to be a hoax, it is going to turn the clock back on their thinking 30 years.” (my emphasis).

I can’t speak for the anti-feminist agonistes that Traister mentioned (they’re douchebags who willfully blind themselves to how dreadful women are treated, and I’m not one of them), but for me, someone who puts a premium on reporting that’s true and done with the due diligence it requires, I’m disappointed with how the Rolling Stone reporter, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, handled things, and how she ultimately brought on unnecessary criticism that’s covering the issue her article meant to air out.

There’s got to be some acknowledgement that Erdely reached out to the accused rapists for comment. Even if they offered “no comment” or refused to respond, you need to make that effort. You need to give them an opportunity to respond and you need to let us know you did. Not doing so undermines your credibility.

But then again, this is a story about rape. About people who are still out in public and who could potentially act against Jackie. Erderly had to tow a fine line, discussed in that same Slate piece:

[Erderly] said that she did not identify the men in the article “by Jackie’s request. She asked me not to name the individuals because she’s so fearful of them. That was something we agreed on.” Erdely would not say, however, whether she knew who they were. “I can’t answer that,” she told the Post. “This was a topic that made Jackie extremely uncomfortable.”

Jackie’s choice to withhold identifies may not be the one you would have made (or the one you’d like to think you’d have made) but it’s unquestionably justifiable.

And yet it’s also problematic for Erderly:

Sara Surface, a good friend of Jackie’s and a member of One Less, a victim advocacy group at UVA, had the impression that Jackie’s reaction was “extreme” when Erdely pressed her—meaning that Jackie became so terrified that she reconsidered going public with her story, even anonymously. If that’s true, then Erdely was in a tough position. Push too hard and she might lose Jackie. But not pushing harder has created a whole new nightmare. (my emphasis)

If Jackie was so terrified about identifying the assailants (and I have no reason to doubt that) Erderly should have put that in the article. By not, Erderly has brought scrutiny to the article (and subsequently to Jackie’s integrity) which could have been avoided (probably not all of it, but at least some).

Now our attention turns from combating rape and rape culture to the ways and means of Erderly’s reportage. And what does that do?

Here’s Rebecca Traister again:

What we will all be allowed to happily forget is that there are plenty of real stories of rape: of violent rape, frat house rape, gang rape, date rape; that most rape accusers do not lie and that in fact it’s quite likely, statistically, that Jackie herself did not lie. But the most serious thing that we’ll be allowed to forget is the very point of Erdely’s story, whatever its strengths or flaws may be determined to be: The system does not work

Rolling Stone and reporting on rape

People associated with UVA controversy have ties to new sexual violence task force

Sabrina Rubin Erdely has a damning recount of the UVA’s handling of an alleged 2012 gang rape of a female freshman named Jackie.

“Shut up,” she heard a man’s voice say as a body barreled into her, tripping her backward and sending them both crashing through a low glass table. There was a heavy person on top of her, spreading open her thighs, and another person kneeling on her hair, hands pinning down her arms, sharp shards digging into her back, and excited male voices rising all around her. When yet another hand clamped over her mouth, Jackie bit it, and the hand became a fist that punched her in the face. The men surrounding her began to laugh.


It should surprise no one that the prestigious school Thomas Jefferson founded, now under public scrutiny, is in full PR mode and has asked Charlottesville police to investigate.

A few thoughts.

In early October, I wrote about a VCU student tapped by Gov. McAuliffe’s administration to serve on the governor’s new Combating Campus Sexual Violence task force.

Also on the task force is Emily Renda, the Program Coordinator in Student Affairs at UVA. Renda appears in the Rolling Stone story:

That reaction of dismissal, downgrading and doubt is a common theme UVA rape survivors hear, including from women. “Some of my hallmates were skeptical,” recalls recent grad Emily Renda, who says that weeks into her first year she was raped after a party. “They were silent and avoided me afterwards. It made me doubt myself.” Other students encounter more overt hostility, as when a first-year student confided her assault to a friend. “She said she thought I was just looking for attention,” says the undergrad

…Emily Renda, for one, quickly figured out that few classmates were sympathetic to her plight, and instead channeled her despair into hard partying. “My drinking didn’t stand out,” says Renda, who often ended her nights passed out on a bathroom floor. “It does make you wonder how many others are doing what I did: drinking to self-medicate.”

Her story’s distressing. But as such, she’s perfect for this task force: a student with a horrible, traumatic story that can testify to a rape culture endemic on college campuses, and who (ideally) can help affect significant, meaningful correction of it.

But another person tied to UVA is also on the task force, Allen W. Groves, Dean of Students at UVA. Groves also appears in the Rolling Stone story, albeit unflatteringly (note: I’ve quoted a longer passage here; it’s needed for context):

If the UVA administration was roiled by such concerns, however, it wasn’t apparent this past September, as it hosted a trustees meeting. Two full hours had been set aside to discuss campus sexual assault, an amount of time that, as many around the conference table pointed out, underscored the depth of UVA’s commitment. Those two hours, however, were devoted entirely to upbeat explanations of UVA’s new prevention and response strategies, and to self-congratulations to UVA for being a “model” among schools in this arena. Only once did the room darken with concern, when a trustee in UVA colors – blue sport coat, orange bow tie – interrupted to ask, “Are we under any federal investigation with regard to sexual assault?”

Dean of students Allen Groves, in a blue suit and orange necktie of his own, swooped in with a smooth answer. He affirmed that while like many of its peers UVA was under investigation, it was merely a “standard compliance review.” He mentioned that a student’s complaint from the 2010–11 academic year had been folded into that “routine compliance review.” Having downplayed the significance of a Title IX compliance review – which is neither routine nor standard – he then elaborated upon the lengths to which UVA has cooperated with the Office of Civil Rights’ investigation, his tone and manner so reassuring that the room relaxed.

Told of the meeting, Office of Civil Rights’ Catherine Lhamon calls Groves’ mischaracterization “deliberate and irresponsible.” “Nothing annoys me more than a school not taking seriously their review from the federal government about their civil rights obligations,” she says.

I’m interested in seeing two things: what will outside investigations find out about this heinous episode of sexual violence (and others) at UVA, and how will those findings affect the dynamic of the Combating Campus Sexual Violence task force?

People associated with UVA controversy have ties to new sexual violence task force

Leading the witness

Fellow standing desk user Marco Arment has a few thoughts on a purported podcast revival as recently laid out in New York Magazine.

But most of his post centers on past experiences with reporters who seem more interested in getting the story they want versus getting the story as it is.

Here’s Arment:

Almost every time I’ve talked to a reporter has gone this way: they had already decided the narrative beforehand. I’m never being asked for information — I’m being used for quotes to back up their predetermined story, regardless of whether it’s true. (Consider this when you read the news.) Misquotes usually aren’t mistakes — they’re edited, consciously or not, to say what the reporter needs them to say.

Talking to reporters is like talking to the police: ideally, don’t. You have little to gain and a lot to lose, their incentives often conflict with yours, and they have all of the power.


I don’t have takes from the reporters Arment spoke to, so I can’t reasonably comment on his claims or counter them with the accounts of the reporters. But I can talk about how this isn’t the first time I’ve heard reporters do this.

A while back (a year ago?) I caught up with a couple people I spoke to for my profile of Video Fan, the beloved brick and mortar video store here in Richmond that refuses to kick the bucket.

During our chat, we got on the topic of how local media’s treated the store. The two recalled an instance when a reporter (who I won’t name, nor his publication) came in with his lede already in mind.

The reporter would ask a question, the Video Fan employees would answer. The reporter would follow up those answers with: “So, you’re telling me [this thing that I want to hear] is what happened [even though it didn’t]?” In a courtroom, he’d be reprimanded by the judge for leading the witness.

I sympathize with reporters. So much. It’s a high-stress, poorly compensated profession that’s about as stable as the San Andreas Fault. And in a world where pageviews (sigh) determine the success of an article, there’s a premium on getting juicy stuff.

This is not the way to do it.

Reporters/journalists/editors should strive to tell the truth as best they can. Whether it’s a story about legally dubious NSA actions, or the local food bag’s adding a new gluten-free option, conform to the facts. Anything else is lying in various degrees, and lying is inherently anathema to journalism (or at least should be).

When I interview people, I have questions in my pocket that I typically air out: when did you do this? Why? To what end? It’s the general Five Ws mindset I’ve conditioned myself to.

I may even have assumptions about the person or situation too (it’s hard not to speak generally when I’ve written hundreds of stories over the years). But my pre-interview beliefs only inform the interview. They don’t dominate it. Whatever I get out of the person I’m interviewing, that’s my takeaway. I never use their thoughts/quotations to “back up [my] predetermined story, regardless of whether it’s true.”

Not only is it wrong/unethical to lead your interviewees, you’re also running the risk (by having your story already in mind) of missing out on a kernel of fact that’s way more interesting than anything you had in mind going in. Capitalize on this. Create a narrative or merely mention a facet that gets to the truth. Even if the story turns out to be as exciting as mid-morning C-SPAN, at least you’ve told the truth.

Bullshit dominates so much of our world. Reporters: sift through it. Don’t add to it.

Leading the witness

Serial – This American Life podcast spinoff

The weekly podcast Serial is in its third week and it’s great. Just fantastic nonfiction reporting.

Serial’s first story is long arc about Hae Min Lee, a high-school student convicted of murdering his former girlfriend in Baltimore, 1999.

The did he or didn’t he angle beats with whodunnit? flair. It’s not overwrought (at least not yet), and just the right amount to engage and keep you listening week after week.

Give it a listen, and make sure you start with episode one if you do.

Serial – This American Life podcast spinoff