Rolling Stone editors on Friday backed away from a November article about an alleged 2012 gang rape at a University of Virginia (UVA) fraternity after key parts of the source's story could not be corroborated, leaving advocates for survivors of sexual violence worried about potential fallout.
Last week several publications, including the New York Times and Washington Post, raised questions about discrepancies between the account of the anonymous source, "Jackie", and information that could be independently verified.
Background on the article
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The article gives Jackie's account of suffering a gang-rape at a Phi Kappa Psi party her freshman year and goes on to detail her frustration with the administration's and her peers' responses to the allegations. In the article, the victim says she felt abandoned by the school and many of her classmates. She did not file a police report, but did report the incident to UVA's Sexual Misconduct Board.
The school is one of 86 facing a federal compliance review for their handling of sexual assault misconduct.
Since the publication, UVA has faced strong student reactions and public scrutiny. More women have reported being sexually assaulted while in school, all Greek activity was suspended until January 9, students have led protests on campus, Phi Kappa Psi gave up its charter—essentially suspending itself—the fraternity's house was vandalized, and the school appointed an independent investigator to review the institution's policies and procedures.
Discrepancies in the story
The Washington Post conducted several interviews that led to doubts regarding significant details of Jackie's account, and many publications blasted Rolling Stone for failing to interview the accused attackers. Inconsistencies include that the name of one of her alleged attackers—who she says was a junior in 2012, a university lifeguard, and member of Phi Kappa Psi—matches a student in another fraternity. Phi Kappa Psi has not had a member by that name, nor did any members work at the aquatic center that year. Additionally, Phi Kappa Psi verified it did not hold any events the night in question.
Jackie continues to maintain a story very similar to the one in the Rolling Stone account.
Will Dana, the magazine's managing editor, originally posted an apology to readers reading, in part, "In the face of new information, there now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie's account, and we have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced."
The statement has since been changed to place more blame on the publication itself, now reading: "We were mistaken in honoring Jackie's request to not contact the alleged assaulters to get their account... We should have not made this agreement with Jackie and we should have worked harder to convince her that the truth would have been better served by getting the other side of the story."
What this means for survivors
Research shows that only between 2% and 8% of rape allegations are unfounded, and victim advocates say they fear the ramifications of such a high-profile, potential example.
"The doubt cast on Jackie’s story has been feeding the myth that we have been combating for 40 years — that women lie about rape. And I feel that will put women at a disadvantage in coming forward," says Emily Renda, a sexual violence awareness expert at UVA.
Establishing anonymous sexual assault reporting
Other experts point out that discrepancies in the story do not necessarily mean Jackie was lying, but rather that trauma could be obscuring details in her mind.
David Cohen, associate law professor at Drexel University, said he cringed when reading the Washington Post article, saying it "read like they were cross-examining a criminal defendant."
"I'm very concerned that women on college campuses are going to be afraid that if they come forward, they won't be believed—and that they'll be interrogated by college administrators, the police, and any news outlets that pick it up," he says.
Related: Victim advocates services on campus
But other advocates express less concern. "One or a few faulty narratives, whatever the details in this particular case, do not call into question the substantial research evidence that campus sexual assault is a serious, chronic public health issue," says Bill Flack, associate psychology professor at Bucknell University and organizer of the national Faculty Against Rape group.
"The lesson for higher education... remains the same: solve the problem and do not get distracted by controversy about the truth or falsity of a news report," says Alan Berkowitz, a sexual assault prevention consultant.
UVA President Theresa Sullivan announced Friday that the university will continue work on "one of the most difficult and critical issues facing higher education today: sexual violence on college campuses." She went on to reaffirm that "the University remains first and foremost concerned with the care and support of our students and, especially, any survivor of sexual assault" (Shapiro, Washington Post, 12/5; Jaschik, Inside Higher Ed, 12/8; Mangan, Chronicle of Higher Education, 12/7).
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