Rolling Stone And The Debate Over Sexual Assault Reporting Standards

UVA Rape report in Rolling Stone

A Rolling Stone article about campus rape and how universities respond to sexual assault has raised an important debate about what the proper standards for reporting on sexual assault should be -- but it's crucial that whatever standards are ultimately chosen, they don't make it impossible to tell these stories.

A University of Virginia student named Jackie told Rolling Stone that she was gang raped in 2012 by members of a campus fraternity, and that campus administrators failed to investigate her story when she reported it. Jackie was one of several students in the piece who criticized UVA's response to sexual assaults, and the school is currently under federal investigation for its handling of such cases.

The Rolling Stone article initially received widespread acclaim and triggered swift action from UVA. But it has since come under fire from critics who say that the magazine violated journalism best practices, particularly with regard to its handling of the alleged assailants. Sabrina Rubin Erdely, the author of the article, and Rolling Stone, have since explained that they corroborated Jackie's story by talking to dozens of her friends, in part to ensure that she had consistently told the same story for years, but were unable to reach the accused rapists (one of whom is identified with the pseudonym “Drew” and others who are not identified at all) for comment -- a fact which was omitted in the article. (UPDATE: After the publication of this post NPR's David Folkenflik brought to our attention that in an interview with him, Erdely said she had not contacted the alleged assailant at the request of Jackie. Her editor Sean Woods made similar statements to The New Republic. These comments appear to contradict other statements Erdely gave to Slate and Woods gave to The Washington Post, on which the criticisms referenced in this post were based.)

A number of journalists have criticized Erdely for this omission. Slate's Hanna Rosin and Allison Benedikt wrote that the “basic rules of reporting a story like this” include doing everything possible to reach the alleged assailant, and, if one is unable to do so, including a sentence “explaining that you tried -- and explaining how you tried.” They criticize Rolling Stone for failing to include such a sentence, writing that this is “absolutely necessary, because it tells readers you tried your best to get the other side of the story.”

The Washington Post's Erik Wemple took this critique a step further, saying that Rolling Stone had “whiff[ed]” with the article and suggesting they should have held the piece until they were able to name the accused in print (Erdely says she had agreed to Jackie's request “not to name the individuals because she's so fearful of them”), or find some other “solid” evidence:

The publication says it didn't name the perpetrators because Jackie is “so fearful of them. That was something we agreed on,” Erdely commented. That's a compelling reason -- to hold the story until Jackie felt comfortable naming them; or until she filed a complaint; or until something more solid on the case emerged.

In voicing these concerns about Erdely's journalistic practices, these reporters are proposing that there is a standard these types of stories should meet -- perhaps before they can even be published -- which includes a high bar for finding of proof, including doing everything in the reporter's power to identify and contact the accused, informing the reader of those attempts, and possibly going as far as to include their name and perspective in the piece.

Reporters may find such standards appropriate. Sexual assault, and particularly gang rape, is a terrible crime, and it is logical that journalists would want to tread carefully when assessing the validity of accusations. Rosin's and Benedikt's argument that it would at the very least have been simple for Erdely to include a sentence noting she had attempted to reach out seems reasonable.

However, previous reports on sexual assaults -- including from the Post and Slate -- have not met these standards, and have not come under similar scrutiny or criticism. Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson, who has said he was not involved in the editing of this particular piece, tweeted several examples of reporting on sexual assault in which publications did not include any mention of ever attempting to contact the accused for comment and did not name the alleged perpetrator.

In October, Slate published an account of two suits against a Georgia Tech student who was expelled from the campus after being accused of rape. The student was unnamed in the article and there was no note about whether he was contacted for comment. Another October Slate piece, about Columbia University student Emma Sulkowicz, who has been carrying her mattress around campus to protest the university's handling of her rape case, noted that the accused student “has never commented on the matter,” but did not note whether Slate in particular had attempted to contact him. A Post article, also on Sulkowicz, also did not mention any attempts to contact the accused. Nor did The New York Times. Though the man accused in Sulkowicz's case has previously been identified as “Paul” by New York magazine, none of these other stories chose to name him.

These stories involved cases where police and/or the campus reporting system were heavily involved, which perhaps provides the “solid” evidence Wemple suggested was necessary to help corroborate claims. But Jackie's story is notable precisely because she says the campus system failed to respond appropriately to her complaints, preventing the creation of such a record. These other articles still don't seem to follow the “basic rules of reporting,” explaining whether they attempted to contact the accused, that Rosin and Benedikt stated were so necessary.

Do crime reporters covering other types of victims adhere to such a standard? Helen Benedict, a Columbia journalism professor who has reported on sexual assault, defended Rolling Stone to The New York Times by arguing that they do not, and reporters covering sexual assault allegations shouldn't feel bound to either:

“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,” she said. “The piece might have been stronger with more than one source, but exposés of wrongdoing often start with one whistle-blower.”

Others question whether contacting alleged offenders is necessary if the publication does not name them. Marc Cooper, an associate professor in journalism at the University of Southern California, reportedly told the Times that Rolling Stone “had not misled anyone or abrogated a duty in not contacting those accused, because they were unnamed.”

So is contacting or identifying the accused, which Erdely is criticized for failing to do, really one of the “basic rules of reporting,” a standard journalists working on sexual assault stories must be held to before they can publish these stories? Or should it simply be something that is recommended?

Commentators, including Rosin and Benedikt, have argued that getting even just a “no comment” from the accused can add detail and nuance to a story. When journalists at NPR and the Associated Press questioned Bill Cosby about the growing number of rape accusations against him, his silence and his lawyer's statements were telling indications of his power and his attempts to control the narrative. But though these statements may be useful or interesting, the journalism professors contacted by the Times and previous reporting on sexual assault victims suggest there is no clear convention mandating their inclusion.

What the standard should be for sexual assault reporting is worth debating -- but journalists debating it should be honest about these inconsistencies and account for them, and admit that adherence to this standard would be a shift to a higher bar than has previously been followed.

If journalism does set a higher bar for sexual assault stories, it will make it harder for survivors to come forward to tell these stories. Studies have found that the vast majority of college sexual assault victims do not do so -- while one in five women are sexually assaulted on college campuses, about "88 percent of college victims do not formally report sexual assaults."

The reasons victims don't report include fear of shame and stigma, and fear that no one will believe them. Survivors have said they felt re-victimized by the suggestion that they are lying about the traumatic events they experienced. And many survivors -- including several of the women who have accused Bill Cosby of rape -- only feel safe or comfortable speaking out many years after the fact, when pursuing criminal charges or finding “solid” evidence is nearly impossible.

Conservative media have long tried to dismiss the realities of sexual assault on campus, and often question and attack the stories of individual victims who come forward. In attempting to downplay the realities of sexual assault on campus, several conservative media figures have played up the myth of frequent “false rape,” insisting that many survivors who come forward, such as Jackie, are lying or bending the truth. In so doing, they encourage mainstream journalists to hold these stories to higher levels of scrutiny. In reality, there is no epidemic of false rape. According to the FBI, people falsely report rape only three percent of the time -- the same amount as all other comparable crime.  

If Jackie had not come forward out of fear, or if Rolling Stone had chosen not to publish because they felt there wasn't sufficient evidence (beyond the dozens of interviews they conducted), the failure of UVA's system would not have come to light. Since the article's publication, UVA has requested a formal investigation, though police have yet to open the case, and has temporarily suspended fraternity activity, while welcoming campus discussion to find solutions. Journalists can aim for reporting standards on sexual assault that don't make it impossible for these stories to be told.