We’ve been skeptical of Rolling Stone’s recent and controversial story about a coed simply referred to as ‘Jackie’ who claimed to have been brutally gang raped at a University of Virginia frat party in 2012.
Sabrina Ruben Erdely, the Rolling Stone reporter covering the UVA gang rape story, failed to contact the alleged attackers and corroborate Jackie’s story. Any ‘new information’ Rolling Stone is referring to is simply the product of basic journalistic due diligence.
In a reactionary response, and without first conducting an investigation of their own, UVA suspended all campus fraternities until January as a result of the Rolling Stone expose.
Today, Rolling Stone posted the following note to readers (emphasis added):
To Our Readers:
Last month, Rolling Stone published a story titled “A Rape on Campus” by Sabrina Rubin Erdely, which described a brutal gang rape of a woman named Jackie at a University of Virginia fraternity house; the university’s failure to respond to this alleged assault – and the school’s troubling history of indifference to many other instances of alleged sexual assaults. The story generated worldwide headlines and much soul-searching at UVA. University president Teresa Sullivan promised a full investigation and also to examine the way the school responds to sexual assault allegations.
Because of the sensitive nature of Jackie’s story, we decided to honor her request not to contact the man she claimed orchestrated the attack on her nor any of the men she claimed participated in the attack for fear of retaliation against her. In the months Erdely spent reporting the story, Jackie neither said nor did anything that made Erdely, or Rolling Stone’s editors and fact-checkers, question Jackie’s credibility. Her friends and rape activists on campus strongly supported Jackie’s account. She had spoken of the assault in campus forums. We reached out to both the local branch and the national leadership of the fraternity where Jackie said she was attacked. They responded that they couldn’t confirm or deny her story but had concerns about the evidence.
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. We were trying to be sensitive to the unfair shame and humiliation many women feel after a sexual assault and now regret the decision to not contact the alleged assaulters to get their account. We are taking this seriously and apologize to anyone who was affected by the story.
The accused fraternity released the following statement, which was published by the Washington Post:
“Over the past two weeks the Virginia Alpha Chapter of Phi Kappa Psi has been working tirelessly and openly with the Charlottesville Police Department as they investigate the allegations detailed in the November 19, 2012 Rolling Stone article. We continue to be shocked by the allegations and saddened by this story. We have no knowledge of these alleged acts being committed at our house or by our members. Anyone who commits any form of sexual assault, wherever or whenever, should be identified and brought to justice.
“In tandem with the Charlottesville Police Department’s investigation, the Chapter’s undergraduate members have made efforts to contribute with internal fact-finding. Our initial doubts as to the accuracy of the article have only been strengthened as alumni and undergraduate members have delved deeper. Given the ongoing nature of the criminal investigation, which we fully support, we do not feel it would be appropriate at this time to provide more than the following:
“First, the 2012 roster of employees at the Aquatic and Fitness Center does not list a Phi Kappa Psi as a lifeguard. As far as we have determined, no member of our fraternity worked there in any capacity during this time period.
“Second, the Chapter did not have a date function or a social event during the weekend of September 28th, 2012.
“Third, our Chapter’s pledging and initiation periods, as required by the University and Inter-Fraternity Council, take place solely in the spring semester and not in the fall semester. We document the initiation of new members at the end of each spring. Moreover, no ritualized sexual assault is part of our pledging or initiation process. This notion is vile, and we vehemently refute this claim.
It is our hope that this information will encourage people who may know anything relevant to this case to contact the Charlottesville Police Department as soon as possible. In the meantime, we will continue to assist investigators in whatever way we can.”
The Washington Post did the tough investigative work Rolling Stone failed to do and picked up the phone to fact check. In addition to the fact that the fraternity’s account seems to contradict a number of Jackie’s accusations, WaPo found it difficult to corroborate many details of her story:
A group of Jackie’s close friends, who are sex assault awareness advocates at U-Va., said they believe something traumatic happened to Jackie but also have come to doubt her account. They said details have changed over time, and they have not been able to verify key points of the story in recent days. A name of an alleged attacker that Jackie provided to them for the first time this week, for example, turned out to be similar to the name of a student who belongs to a different fraternity, and no one by that name has been a member of Phi Kappa Psi.
Reached by phone, that man, a U-Va. graduate, said Friday that he did work at the Aquatic Fitness Center and was familiar with Jackie’s name. He said, however, that he had never met Jackie in person and had never taken her on a date. He also said that he was not a member of Phi Kappa Psi.
Alex Pinkleton, a close friend of Jackie’s who survived a rape and an attempted rape during her first two years on campus, said in an interview that she has had numerous conversations with Jackie in recent days and now feels misled.
“One of my biggest fears with these inconsistencies emerging is that people will be unwilling to believe survivors in the future,” Pinkleton said. “However, we need to remember that the majority of survivors who come forward are telling the truth.”
Pinkleton said that she is concerned that sexual assault awareness advocacy groups will suffer as a result of the conflicting details of the Rolling Stone allegations.
Pinkleton’s concerns are spot on. Actual instances of rape will be taken less seriously for every fabricated or inaccurate rape story that makes it’s way into the headlines.
This story makes the third rape allegation this week that has either been debunked or inaccurately reported.
A federal investigation found that a student at the University of Chicago fabricated rape threats to drum up support for cultural sensitivity issues.
In her book, Lena Dunham claimed to have been raped by a “mustachioed campus Republican,” a claim that doesn’t hold up to basic fact checking either.
It’s important to clarify that while there are gaping holes in the Rolling Stone UVA allegations, we don’t know what actually happened to Jackie. The issue is one of journalistic malfeasance of the worst kind.
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