By Press-Gazette Media Editorial Board at Green Bay Press-Gazette
The anger and outrage one felt after reading the Rolling Stone cover story that detailed the alleged gang rape of a University of Virginia student at a frat party were understandable. Even justified.
But those emotions were tempered after details emerged on the veracity of the woman’s account and how badly the magazine reported, edited and fact-checked — or didn’t fact-check — the story.
In the Nov. 19 Rolling Stone story, “A rape on campus: A brutal assault and struggle for justice at UVA,” reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely details the sexual assault of a student named “Jackie” by seven men in a darkened room at a frat party and the callous disregard for her well-being by the perpetrators and inaction by the university.
What was tellingly missing from the Rolling Stone story was any comment, even a “no comment,” from those suspected of raping the woman.
It led the magazine to walk back the story and to post a note to readers explaining that “Because of the sensitive nature of Jackie’s story, we decided to honor her request not to contact the man who she claimed orchestrated the attack on her nor any of the men who she claimed participated in the attack for fear of retaliation against her.”
Rolling Stone admitted that given all the questions other news organizations have raised, “we have come to the conclusion that we were mistaken in honoring Jackie’s request to not contact the alleged assaulters to get their account.”
It seems reckless and remarkable that the magazine would agree to those stipulations with such serious accusations and that it wouldn’t insist the writer track down and try to talk to those accused, even if they were not named.
Journalism watchdogs and critics will sort out the Rolling Stone missteps.
What’s more worrying is the impact this will have on anyone who reports a sexual assault, whether on campus, in the military, in the workplace or in the community.
Before the discrepancies were revealed, we ran a guest editorial from the Chicago Tribune on the Rolling Stone article. It focused more on how universities are under pressure to change how they respond to these claims.
It is difficult to determine whether there’s a “campus rape culture,” as the headline said, because of contradicting surveys and beliefs.
One survey cited by the editorial says that 1 in 5 college women had experienced “attempted or completed” sexual assaults. That statistic was widely repeated in the media last week.
A second survey we found was the U.S. Department of Justice report on “Violent Victimization of College Students, 1995-2002.” It says that “college students ages 18-24 experienced violence at average annual rates lower than those of nonstudents in the same age group.”
Meanwhile, many experts believe instances of sexual assault on campus, and elsewhere, are under-reported.
We believe the takeaway on this issue should be this:
•Accusations of sexual assault should be taken seriously, wherever they occur. Victims should be supported and encouraged to report them.
•Campuses should let law enforcement agencies investigate all sexual assault claims.
Currently, Department of Education regulations “encourage schools to allow victims to decide how and whether to go to police,” Robert Shibley of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education wrote in a Time magazine essay last week, “while demanding that schools conduct what amount to rape trials in campus kangaroo courts, even if the crime is never reported to law enforcement. This has proved to be a mistake.”
Indeed it is a mistake — for the apparent victim, the alleged perpetrator and the seriousness of the crime.
The FBI ranks crimes in order of seriousness: Murder is first; rape is second, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. If that is the case, why would federal regulations allow a university to handle the matter in an internal judicial process?
We agree with RAINN, which in a February letter to the White House urged the federal government to require colleges and universities to treat allegations of sexual assault with the same seriousness as other violent felonies.
It seems to us that everyone in such cases is entitled to due process — the accuser as well as the accused.
The university should step back from adjudication and instead work on education on the issue, prevention and support. The conflict of interest is too big for an institution that wants to protect its students as well as its brand.
Schools: University of Virginia