“Bad Journalism,” Rolling Stone, and Rape

Man, people are way too excited about the possibility that the feature character in the now-infamous Rolling Stone piece about rape on the University of Virginia campus. Media outlets across the country have been weighing in (with think pieces aplenty!) about the ramifications of such journalistic errors.

We’re hit with the predictable tongue-clucking from the mainstream news media, as each publication tried desperately to show that they value ETHICS and RESPONSIBILITY. “We know what Rolling Stone did wrong! We don’t make those mistakes! We’re absolutely relevant! PLEASE READ US WE’RE DYING!”

USA Today’s take was pretty representative, with a list of all the things that went wrong. A Washington Post columnist declared it to be “the worst screwup in the history of modern American journalism” (take that, Jimmy’s World!).

As is often the case, they’re missing the larger point of the article.

Look, this is Public Relations 101 – if you don’t like a message, scream bloody murder about how the information was reported. Throw enough misdirection out there, blame “the media,” and try to slink away. And for UVA, it worked.

So, let’s focus on two key points in the article that have nothing to do with Jackie:

The University of Virginia is one of the 86 schools now under federal investigation for inadequately handling sexual assault cases.

This is essential. UVA took the spotlight in this case, but this is a nationwide issue. Critics love to go after the “1 in 5” statistic, but it’s based off a slew of studies, the studies are methodologically sound, and when you consider the different types of sexual assault and rape, the numbers are actually pretty accurate. Throw in the fact that rape is wildly, uncomfortably, unbelievably underreported, and I’m glad colleges are being forced to address this issue. Honestly, instead of journalists climbing over one another to denounce Rolling Stone, every single outlet should find the nearest college campus and figure out the process for reporting a rape or sexual assault.

That leads us to the second point key point in the article:

In the last academic year, 38 students went to Dean Eramo about a sexual assault, up from about 20 students three years ago. However, of those 38, only nine resulted in “complaints”; the other 29 students evaporated. Of those nine complaints, four resulted in Sexual Misconduct Board hearings.

Dean Eramo is a key figure in all of this, and a disturbing one to boot. Part of her job is to listen to student complaints and, according to the article, dissuade them from filing formal complaints (because “nobody wants to send their daughter to a rape school”). It’s a horrifying piece of the article, and it’s heartbreaking to hear how many survivors consider Eramo to be above criticism. In their eyes, she’s a hero who helped them through a horrifying experience. In reality, she’s there to protect the college, not the victims.

These key points are being completely overlooked, because Jackie’s story might not be consistent (though, it should be pointed out that it’s consistent with suffering through trauma). Her crime seems to be that she lied, not necessarily about being raped, but the circumstances under which she was raped. As has become the case, victims’ stories have to be above reproach. Otherwise, they come under attack, and the next victim is that much less likely to come forward.

Attention is slowly being placed back on the University of Virginia, and vindicating Jackie, but we’ve got a long way to go before outrage over “bad journalism” gives way to the realization that this piece was a lot more about one student. Make no mistake that this story needed to be told. As is too often the case, we’re just paying attention to the wrong part.

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