Controversial Rolling Stone Article May Discourage Reports of Sexual Assault

Dec 16, 2014

The controversy over the retracted Rolling Stone story about an alleged gang rape of a student identified only as "Jackie" at a fraternity house on the University of Virginia campus has sparked many debates. On this segment of River to River - the lessons learned in journalism, ethics, and the way new media impacts how these stories are told and discussed.

After several discrepancies were found in Rolling Stone's exposé of a sexual assault problem at the University of Virginia, the magazine initially issued a statement saying they "trusted" Jackie’s account and found their "trust in her was misplaced." Gigi Durham, professor of journalism and gender studies at the University of Iowa, says that the blame placed on Jackie by the magazine was misguided.

"Journalists necessarily need to go to multiple sources, need to fact check, need to triangulate the evidence... especially when there's going to be controversy around the story," she says. "A story like this really needs to be accurate in every respect before it's published."

I wish we could disentangle the journalism from the issue of rape, but we can't. - Gigi Durham

Durham also mentioned that journalists need to be cognizant of whether their source has gone through trauma, which can muddy the facts of a person's already imperfect memory. After working with victims of sexual assault through Iowa City's Rape Victim Advocacy Program, Susan Junis agrees. She says that most survivors of sexual assault meet the criteria for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

"One of the symptoms is memory loss," says Junis. "The brain builds walls around those memories" which are "too intense for them to remember or even think about on a daily basis."

One thing both Durham and Junis worry about is how this controversy will affect the rate of reports of sexual assault - a crime that often goes unreported. Since Jackie has become the latest victim of doxing - the practice of distributing personal information about someone online - they worry future victims will be too intimidated to come forward.

"College students are less likely to report rape than non-students, so I feel as though this story may actually discourage rape survivors from reporting even more, because of all the negative repercussions of this story," says Durham.

For Durham, the most important lesson to take away from this story is that reporters need to learn how to report on sexual assault. She also hopes that the controversial aspects of this case do not detract from the real issue of campus rape.

"Just because certain elements of that story didn't hold up under fact-checking doesn't mean that Jackie's story should be discredited and it doesn't mean that sexual assault it not highly prevalent on college campuses."