A Feminist’s Lesson After the Rolling Stone/UVA Story: Time to Start a New Conversation on Rape

Rolling Stone, UVA, University of Virginia, Columbia School of Journalism report, UVA fraternityAbout a week ago, a friend of my daughter’s posted something on Facebook that I found hilarious: a short video clip of President Obama attending some kind of international summit in South Korea, and making his entrance across a huge stage by means of a skateboard. I admit that a little voice in my head said, “Why didn’t Fox News make a huge ruckus about this?”—but it looked like the President, and it was funny. So I “shared” on Facebook, with the remark, “I cannot think of any other U.S. President cool enough to pull this off.” Did I think about the fact that some of my Facebook friends are of a decidedly conservative political persuasion? Yes, I did. Did I think about the fact that I’ve put up with some of their posts that I didn’t think were particularly amusing? Yes, I did.

And yet, almost immediately, a friend posted a comment: “I don’t think that’s Obama.” And of course it wasn’t. I’d been had.

The reason I’d been had, I realized later, was my own desire to see the President as possessing a certain sangfroid and irreverence totally lacking in his immediate predecessor—and, for that matter, in the earnest, pious patriotism displayed by so many of his opponents on the far right. In my mind, the thought “Wouldn’t that just fry John Boehner” seduced me right past my initial skepticism. I mean, since when do U.S. Presidents arrive at international summits via skateboard? I had to admit I looked pretty stupid.

From Presidents on skateboards to the college rape crisis may seem like a stretch—but there’s a rough analogy, I think, between my credulity at seeing the President on a skateboard and Sabrina Erdely’s reporting of her now-discredited Rolling Stone piece on campus rape at the University of Virginia. An anatomy of that journalistic failure, researched and written by Sheila Coronel, Steve Coll and Derek Kravitz of the Columbia University School of Journalism, was published by Rolling Stone this week.

While the report detailed numerous specific problems in the reporting and editing of the Rolling Stone piece, the most fundamental problems were two: basing an entire story on one primary source, and “confirmation bias”—the phenomenon in which the observer selects facts that support an underlying assumption while ignoring evidence that might disprove it. In this case, Erdely’s basic premise was that campus rape is a widespread problem in which countless young women are being victimized, and powerful educational institutions are more interested in protecting their reputation than in punishing the perpetrators of the crimes. My own daughter, who is a freshman in college this year, is firmly of the opinion that rape on college campuses is a common and unaddressed problem, and if you Google “college rape statistics” the numbers you see support her belief. One in four women in college today has been the victim of rape” asserts the first website that pops up, adding, “Every 21 hours there is another rape on an American college campus.” Anyone who raises questions about such statistics is instantly accused of “blaming the victim.”

That’s what happened to Emily Yoffe, a writer for Slate, who did examine the provenance of campus rape statistics in an article last December, the gist of which was her argument that, in attempting to protect the victims of rape on campus, colleges and universities are in danger of ignoring the legal rights of the accused.

Reasonable people can debate both these points, especially the first. The idea that one in four college women are rape victims is hard for me to swallow, since in that case it doesn’t seem to push beyond the bounds of logic to think that my daughter, or one of her friends, or one of their friends, would be able to name at least one person in their vast social media orbit who has been a victim, which is not the case—but that doesn’t mean Yoffe has an exact read on the problem, either. Statistics are notoriously tricky, crime statistics are especially so, and rape statistics are the hardest of all to pin down and verify. The reasons are obvious: the extremely traumatic nature of the crime, the stigma attached to rape victims and the wide variety in reporting methods and reliability.

The problem was that there was no debate about Yoffe’s piece. People either loved it or they hated it; they either saw Yoffe as a courageous defender of basic civil rights or as an apologist for sexually entitled frat boys. One typical reasoned critique: “Emily Yoffe can move into a house of bats where everything is made of bats.”

I am not denying or minimizing the horrifying reality of this crime. Years ago, a friend was brutally raped by a stranger in her own home—a deranged intruder who was later killed by police as he trolled her neighborhood by bicycle, though not before he in turn shot and killed the officer who had confronted him. I was with her when she recounted her four-hour ordeal to the doctor at the hospital emergency room. That rape didn’t even happen to me, yet to this day I cannot remember that event without feeling like I am about to hyperventilate.

But for the very reason that this is a crime that generates intense emotion, we need to be able to talk about it as factually and dispassionately as possible, most particularly among ourselves, as feminists. Cut the accusatory crap and start with numbers. What do we know, really, and what is still unclear? What steps can we take based on what we do know? What legal protections are there, both for the victim and the accused? Are universities even the right bodies to do this sort of thing, or should there be some other forum? Can we please examine the weird phenomenon of talking about this topic as if sexually empowered 21st century young women are helpless Victorian maidens whose well-being depends entirely on what males do or not do?

I don’t know if Sabrina Erdely’s reporting methods would have been different had she conducted her inquiry in an atmosphere that was more welcoming to open discussion and skeptical inquiry, as opposed to the intensely polarized and often strident atmosphere we seem to have. But it wouldn’t have hurt. I am pretty sure that my fleeting skepticism about the Obama on a skateboard video might have had more of a chance to register if it had not coincided with my preconceptions about somebody I’ve never met, and if I had not been lured by the prospect of scoring a point for “my” side of an ongoing and highly polarized argument.

You can find Tracy Thompson at her website, www.tracythompson.com, and at her blog, The Blockhead Chronicles. Her most recent book is The New Mind of the South.

 Image via Wikimedia Commons/Todd Vance/CC License

  • One Funny Motha

    I appreciate your points and agree with much of it, but while a more open atmosphere couldn’t have hurt, I don’t quite see it as the cause of the problem. The reporter (and editor and entire Rolling Stone staff) failed to do what reporters are supposed to do. Check the facts as best they can & present what they’ve uncovered. Talk to all sides. Talk to witnesses. Try to present as clear a picture as possible. While I understand the trepidation and concern (and commend the reporter for such) in discussing this very sensitive topic and not wanting to re-traumatize the victim, you can’t do a piece on any crime or controversial topic without verifying as much as you can and at least interviewing the other side. This to me is a failure of very basic journalism principles. Which is rather unfortunate because now the focus has shifted to the covering of the rape rather than the crime itself.

  • Good piece overall, but as a journalist, I have to (mostly) agree with One Funny Motha below.
    Totally a journalistic failure, and given the severity of the story, even more so. Did we learn nothing from the Duke lacrosse rape case a decade ago?
    Where I disagree is in the shift of focus: rape still has a huge national focus on it, and ironically, this story now adds to it still, whatever laments we sigh.
    But the story itself remains one of coverage, as it should be. Because we can’t have blatantly false reporting of such a serious crime. So for that, we should all be glad to see Rolling Stone taken to task. Journalists have been fired for far, far less egregious reporting AND gatekeeping. The editors were also complicit.
    (The backstory is the total mishandling of this matter by the UVA president, which included trampling on those frat kids constitutional rights, but that’s a matter for ANOTHER investigative report, hopefully one correctly done in terms of Journalism 101)
    Typically, I am not a heads-should-roll type of guy. But in this case, RS management should start at the editor-in-chief, and work their way down through the fact checkers/copy editors to the writer herself and send them packing. But of course they won’t because of their institutional arrogance.
    Maybe Rolling Stone needs to go back to what they are good at: covering the music scene, and leave investigative reporting to real, hard-news pros.

  • Tracy Thompson

    Author here: I agree that this was a journalistic failure, but journalistic failures don’t take place in a vacuum. Social and political contexts matter to the work journalists do, and subtly influence it. If you are covering Ebola in Nigeria, you don’t spend a whole lot of time exploring the “other side” of the epidemic, that says Ebola is a hoax or some sort of government trick, because any reasonably educated person can see there really IS no other side. If you are going in to write an article about rape on campus, and you start with the unquestioned premise that campus rape is an epidemic, with new crimes literally being committed every day and universities turning a blind eye, you might not feel the same urgency about exploring what the “other side” (accused perps, fraternities, university administrators) has to say that you might otherwise feel. A polarized atmosphere, which is what we have, makes it all the easier to forget basic rules of careful, thorough reporting. Not excusing Sabrina Erdely; just making a point about the larger discussion, of which we are all a part.

    • Tracy, your points are well taken and without question context matters to my work as a journalist; if it didn’t, then why bother with the story in the first place?
      But context never has, and never should, replace accuracy, verification, objectivity, and fairness – particularly in investigative stories. That’s the bottom line; without those four principles applied and tested to the story and to sources, you’re flat out not doing your job as a reporter.
      And if you are covering Ebola in Nigeria, you absolutely DO look at the hoaxers and conspiracy theorists because it’s decidedly NOT a journalist’s job to determine what a “reasonably educated person” is, or that there is NO other side.
      Because field experience has taught us that 1—assessing the former with no legwork is just arrogance personified–I don’t get to determine who the “chosen and anointed” readers are, and 2—on the latter, there is ALWAYS another side, regardless of what every person outside the realm of the story thinks. ALWAYS.
      That entire newsroom is an embarrassment to the profession, ESPECIALLY given the social and political contexts you mention.

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