Rolling Stone May Have Published A False Story About Rape And It’s All ‘Round Bad News For Everybody

Rape survivors, readers, journalists — everyone loses.

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Trigger warning: discussions of rape and sexual assault.

Rolling Stone have never been one to shy away from controversy. Whether it’s letting a drug-addled gonzo fill their pages with sprawling rants on sex and politics or slapping a glamourous photo of an alleged terrorist on the cover, this iconic magazine thrives on its rebelliousness. But this week, its latest furore is the result of an accident — Rolling Stone has this morning issued an apology for a recent story they published about a reported gang rape at the University of Virginia.

“In the face of new information, there now appear to be discrepancies in [the alleged rape survivor’s] account,” they wrote. “We have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced … We are taking this seriously and apologize to anyone who was affected by the story.”

Much more than a regular factual error, this monumental problem has created a downright horrific situation. Rolling Stone have lost a huge amount of credibility. A woman claiming she was raped is under worldwide scrutiny. There are a group of men who now may be falsely accused of a serious crime. And, most devastating of all, the myth that a majority of rape allegations are false will be perpetuated once more.

Everybody loses.

What Actually Happened?

For those who haven’t been following the story, this all started when Rolling Stone published a feature article last month. ‘A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA‘ detailed the explosive story of a young woman being brutally gang raped at a fraternity house at the University of Virginia. Written by Sabrina Rubin Erdely, the story covered her recollection of the assault, the problems the woman faced when attempting to report the event to the university and the insidious instances of sexual assault that seem to plague fraternities all over the country. The story became representative — a tragic example of a national endemic that many young women could relate to; one that they could use as a call to action for serious change.

Once the article was published there were protests on campus. The fraternity in question (Phi Kappa Psi) was under severe scrutiny, the police started investigating the case, and the university committed to creating better systems of support for victims of sexual assault to come forward.

Before all this, the article had been shared by more than 170,000 people on social media.

But here’s the problem: following a request from the alleged victim, the writer never approached the fraternity nor the alleged rapists for comment. “We were trying to be sensitive to the unfair shame and humiliation many women feel after a sexual assault,” said Rolling Stone editor Will Dana. “[We] now regret the decision to not contact the alleged assaulters to get their account.”

So, What’s Changed?

Even before today’s apology, Rolling Stone were copping some serious flak for not interviewing the accused parties. It’s a basic tenet of journalism that people should have a right of reply, especially if they’re being implicated in a crime. And though we don’t know exactly what “discrepancies” with the story prompted them to release an apology, it’s safe to say it has something to do with the statements of Phi Kappa Psi.

The fraternity have poked holes in the alleged victim’s story saying there was no party held on the date in question. “No ritualized sexual assault is part of our pledging or initiation process,” they said in a statement today. “This notion is vile, and we vehemently refute this claim.”

Needless to say, it should have been included in the original feature.

But that’s not to say the story isn’t true. The statement released by Rolling Stone isn’t a retraction; it’s more of a scrambling admission that they generally didn’t do very well at this whole journalism schtick. What they’ve actually done the worst thing possible — they’ve created doubt.

By not revealing exactly what “discrepancies” have emerged, and not fully retracting the story, they’ve essentially left the onus of proof on the alleged victim. Though their article criticised the harsh scrutiny young women seem to face when coming forward about sexual assault, they’ve now amplified her struggle to the world stage and left her there to fend for herself.

What Should We Take Away From This?

Simply put: we don’t have all the facts and shouldn’t jump to any conclusions. That’s how this whole mess started. What we should do is turn our attention to the issue at large. Regardless of the journalistic standards of Rolling Stone, this woman’s story is still a symbol. Sexual assault is a problem in universities all over the world; in the US alone there are upwards of 50 respected institutions being investigated for mishandling reports of assault and harassment.

Moreover, even if this woman’s story is not true, false allegations of rape are much more rare than media coverage would let on. Though the real percentage is nearly impossible to know professional estimates don’t paint the most compelling picture.

While the authorities are looking into this specific instance we should offer solidarity to those who are affected by sexual assault. In the US it’s estimated that one in five women face some kind of assault in the course of their undergraduate studies, and the statistics from Australian tertiary institutions are not yet fully known.

Regardless of the outcome of this case, it’s clear there’s a lot more work to do.

If you’re experiencing any form of assault or harassment you can contact an adviser from the Advocacy department of your university or reach Lifeline on 13 11 14 at any time. If you’d like to talk to someone about sexual assault, please call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732).

Picture via Rolling Stone.