If there's a takeaway from the last few years of media coverage of campus sexual assault, it's that the watchdogs charged with checking such injustices — the legal system and the news media — fail at this task. There are countless examples of this, but perhaps none more widely publicized than the catastrophic journalistic exploration of an alleged rape published Nov. 19, 2014, by Rolling Stone.
"A Rape on Campus," by Sabrina Rubin Erdely, centered on the account of an alleged survivor of gang rape, "Jackie," at the University of Virginia. Soon after the piece was published, several outlets questioned the veracity of both the survivor's account as well as Rubin Erdely's reporting. On Dec. 5, 2014, Rolling Stone issued a retraction of the article and enlisted the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism to audit their editorial process. Columbia's report, released Sunday, revealed that Rolling Stone's process, as well as Rubin Erdely's reporting, were questionable. Rolling Stone subsequently removed the article from the Internet, and Rubin Erdely apologized.
This series of events has been upheld as a failure on multiple levels: Journalists decried the article as emblematic of the decline of reporting quality in the age of new media. Sexual assault survivors and advocates said the way Jackie was presented as representative of all survivors revealed why an individual's story cannot serve as a proxy for others. The overwhelming doubt of Jackie's story became the perfect example of how our society mistrusts survivors.
These are all valid points. But positioning the Rolling Stone article alone as indicative of the media's inability to adequately cover — and ultimately be a disservice to the survivors by the news — sexual assault misses a larger point. The real villain made clear by the article is not shoddy journalism but society's inability to deal with widespread sexual assault in a way that leads to justice. Because the systems put in place to prevent and punish sexual assault don't work, telling their story through the media often becomes a sexual assault survivor's only method of recourse.
The problem is that sexual assault doesn't fit a clean media narrative. Forcing it to will inevitably lead to damaging results.
No such thing as "perfect victims": Journalism is designed to present readers with a representative story. This was Rubin Erdely's explicit goal. The opening paragraph of Columbia's report states that Rubin Erdely began the process of reporting the piece by "searching for a single, emblematic college rape case that would show 'what it's like to be on campus now ... where not only is rape so prevalent but also that there's this pervasive culture of sexual harassment/rape culture.'"
The problem? There's no such thing as an emblematic college rape case. In fact there's possibly no phenomenon that lends itself less to a clear narrative than sexual assault.
Though the media searches time and time again for a "perfect victim," research shows that every survivor of sexual assault reacts to trauma in unique ways, and that their ability to accurately recall their experience may vary. This results in a potential breeding ground for journalistic failure, and if such stories are proven not entirely accurate, that perpetuates a cycle of victim-blaming that treats survivors like conniving liars rather than traumatized victims.
This was the outcome of Rubin Ederly's piece. Annie Clark, a sexual assault activist and co-founder of the organization End Rape on Campus, wrote in BuzzFeed that Rolling Stone's mishandling of Jackie's case could "be read as a setback for an entire movement" — an assertion emerging research supports. Plenty of Twitter users leveraged the opportunity to discredit all survivors, prompting others to launch a hashtag in Jackie's defense. Ultimately, "Rolling Stone created a mess for the men and women trying to end sexual violence on campus and off," Jessica Valenti wrote in the Guardian about Columbia's report. "It should be the magazine's job to clean it up."
Rolling Stone's defense further bolstered the victim-blaming cycle by blaming Jackie for their own errors. "Ultimately, we were too deferential to our rape victim; we honored too many of her requests in our reporting," Sean Woods, the article's main editor, said in the report. "We should have been much tougher, and in not doing that, we maybe did her a disservice." Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner described Jackie as a "really expert fabulist storyteller," according to the New York Times, and said the debacle was an "isolated and unusual episode."
This is not just about the Rolling Stone article: Rolling Stone's attempt to provide a representation of sexual assault survivors' general experience may have backfired. But with any luck, it will reveal how broken other systems of adjudication surrounding sexual assault are. Columbia's review of this single journalistic failure must be regarded as evidence that America's system for combatting sexual violence needs an overhaul. Countless survivors' testimonies reveal that reporting to authorities often does more harm than good, as investigators consistently blame survivors for the assaults committed against them, dissuade them from reporting their assaults or treat them in a hostile or disrespectful manner.
To be clear, the media should still continue to cover campus sexual assault. In fact, the media has arguably played an essential role in bringing this issue to light — as it should have and should continue to do. But the media cannot and should not be the only method of recourse for survivors. Rather than looking to a single survivor or news outlet to tell her story we must recognize that this issue is much bigger and deep seated — and will take all of us to improve this system.