Rolling Stone has gotten a lot of attention with a controversial article alleging a rape occurred in 2012 at the University of Virginia, written by Sabrina Rubin Erdely and featuring some harrowing and disturbing details. The victim was identified only as “Jackie.”

Almost as soon as the story was published, doubts arose about its veracity, or at least about the journalistic standards of its author, who did not manage to interview the alleged perpetrators even though it would seem there were ways to have contacted them. Even worse, Erdely has not been forthcoming about the extent of her efforts to find them, and did not include any mention of any of this in the article.

It has become evident that not only did Erdely demonstrate slipshod journalistic standards, but that the story itself could possibly be a fabrication by the alleged victim. This could be wrong, of course; there’s no way to know at this point. But it seems fairly clear that Erdely did not fact check the story properly, and neither did Rolling Stone. Their excuses as to why seem inadequate, self-serving, and obfuscating.

The article was not only about the alleged rape; it was critical of the UVA administration. But what did the administrators do wrong, exactly? They outlined all of Jackie’s choices, and left it to her to decide what to do. Also, Jackie had only come forward to the administration close to a year after the rape supposedly occurred, and it’s not clear from the article whether she named any names. But here’s what is purported to have occurred when she did report it to the official in charge of such incidents:

When Jackie finished talking, Eramo comforted her, then calmly laid out her options. If Jackie wished, she could file a criminal complaint with police. Or, if Jackie preferred to keep the matter within the university, she had two choices. She could file a complaint with the school’s Sexual Misconduct Board, to be decided in a “formal resolution” with a jury of students and faculty, and a dean as judge. Or Jackie could choose an “informal resolution,” in which Jackie could simply face her attackers in Eramo’s presence and tell them how she felt; Eramo could then issue a directive to the men, such as suggesting counseling. Eramo presented each option to Jackie neutrally, giving each equal weight. She assured Jackie there was no pressure – whatever happened next was entirely her choice.

Like many schools, UVA has taken to emphasizing that in matters of sexual assault, it caters to victim choice. “If students feel that we are forcing them into a criminal or disciplinary process that they don’t want to be part of, frankly, we’d be concerned that we would get fewer reports,” says associate VP for student affairs Susan Davis. Which in theory makes sense: Being forced into an unwanted choice is a sensitive point for the victims. But in practice, that utter lack of guidance can be counterproductive to a 19-year-old so traumatized as Jackie was that she was contemplating suicide. Setting aside for a moment the absurdity of a school offering to handle the investigation and adjudication of a felony sex crime – something Title IX requires, but which no university on Earth is equipped to do – the sheer menu of choices, paired with the reassurance that any choice is the right one, often has the end result of coddling the victim into doing nothing.

So the university is between a rock and a hard place. They can give a student autonomy, sympathy, and information; but if the student doesn’t take responsibility and go further with the reporting process, then the university is sure to be criticized for failing to be more heavy-handed in telling the student what to do. (I agree, however, that this should be a criminal matter, rather than being left to a university which cannot offer the same protections for the accused and does not have the same tools to investigate.)

No one has a clue whether Jackie is telling the truth, but her story is suspect in so many ways: her silence for so long despite the extreme seriousness of her allegations (premeditated gang rape of a violent nature); her friends’ advice to keep quiet in the face of such heinous accusations; the fact that if such rape is a widespread initiation rite for this fraternity (as alleged, involving large groups of men) it would have required the silence and acquiescence of many many more people over the years; Jackie’s lack of wounds and failure to seek medical help despite her allegations of being pressed down onto cut glass for three hours; and the fact that Erdely had originally gone looking on many elite campuses for just such a story and had searched until she found one.

People may lie for a variety of reasons, especially to get attention, sympathy, or money, or to implicate someone with whom they are angry. Sometimes they even get paid for it—Stephen Glass, for example, whom Rolling Stone published long ago. Journalistic standards have only fallen since then, not risen. Whatever its truth or falsehood, Erdely’s article should have been sent back for much more work and better verification before it was ever published.

[NOTE: Here’s a long piece I wrote on the subject of campus sexual assault, after the Duke case was debunked as a hoax; and here’s another in-depth analysis of the Rolling Stone article.]

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[Neo-neocon is a writer with degrees in law and family therapy, who blogs at neo-neocon.]