The Rolling Stone Fiasco Is Terrible News for Rape Survivors

When sexual assault reports turn out to be inaccurate—even slightly so—nobody wins.

For the sake of Rolling Stone’s reputation, wrote Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple in a recent column, reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely, the author of an explosive piece about a rape that allegedly took place at the University of Virginia in 2012, had better be the “country’s greatest judge of character.”

It turns out, she was not. After Rolling Stone published the piece in late November, the Internet at first wolfed it down as a masterfully written outrage-read, and then later meticulously picked apart its reporting. On Friday, Rolling Stone managing editor Will Dana appended an editor’s note at the top of the story admitting that there are problems with the narrative the main character, a woman named Jackie, recounted to Erdely.

“There now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie's account,” Dana wrote, “and we have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced.”

The problem seems to stem from the fact that Erdely, honoring a promise to Jackie, did not attempt to contact the fraternity brothers whom Jackie accused of gang-raping her during her freshman year. Now, several of Jackie’s close friends and rape-prevention advocates at UVA are doubting her story, and a lawyer for Phi Kappa Psi, the fraternity implicated in the rape, has released a statement rebutting her claims.

Most, if not all, of Erdely's story might still hold up. But even if the story turns out to be 98 percent right, this whole episode is terrible news for survivors of rape on college campuses and elsewhere.

Several major magazines have published “campus rape” stories in recent months, but Erdely’s was by far the most high-profile. It was posted on my Facebook feed repeatedly, all by different friends. It launched countless Internet “takes.” Most importantly, it prompted a major investigation at UVA and led to the suspending of all of the school’s fraternities. In terms of impact factor, this is a journalist’s—and a sexual-assault-prevention advocate’s—fantasy scenario.

Phi Kappa Psi now says that it does not have a member by the description Jackie provided in the magazine, and that the group did not host a party on the night she claimed the incident took place. Even some of Jackie’s former supporters told the Post they “feel misled.” After she told a group of friends the attacker's name this week, the Washington Post determined that a man by that name is not a member of Phi Kappa Psi.

Some of Erdely’s critics say she should have made a greater effort to interview the accused men. I agree, but I can also understand Erdely’s dilemma. As someone who frequently covers sexual health, I know how hard it can be to entice sources to talk on the record about their personal lives, especially when what supposedly occurred was a monstrous crime. Thus the fake names and absence of the “declined to comment” disclaimer in the Rolling Stone piece.

Erdely bartered the chance to seek out the alleged rapists in exchange for a truly earth-shaking and, she hoped, honest account from a survivor. Let’s say Jackie is telling the truth. The alternative to this story was not “this exact story, but with a comment from the alleged rapist.” The alternative might have been no story at all. The reason we so rarely hear about the full extent of the campus-rape problem is that the crime is so secretive, stigmatized, and difficult to verify. That’s particularly true in cases like this one, where there’s no campus or police paper-trail backing anything up.

Rape stories, meanwhile, are a genre that’s uniquely unforgiving of inaccuracies. Universities and fraternities could use an inconsistent story as an excuse to move on to other issues and to downplay their assault problems. Anti-feminists brandish wrongful accusations in order to claim that “most” rape victims are liars. Victims, meanwhile, become even more skittish, understandably wishing to spare themselves the same scrutiny and persecution. The overwhelming majority of rapes are never reported, in part because many victims fear they won’t be believed.

As the chart above, from The Enliven Project, shows, only about 2 to 8 percent of rape claims turn out to be fabricated, but those that are echo in the media and in public discourse for seemingly much longer than the true ones do.

Reporters are already often reluctant to take on stories investigating the allegations of sources whose claims can't be verified. This story might have an ever greater chilling effect. The next time another Jackie comes forward—even if she is completely honest and has no preconditions—there might not be another national magazine reporter willing to listen. And if there is, the victim will have to steel herself for a fact-checking process that’s far more invasive than Rolling Stone’s apparently was, and for an Internet spotlight that burns twice as hot.