I wish I could say it is a shock that Rolling Stone would publish the inadequately-researched UVA rape story, or that a journalist with supposedly strong investigative credentials such as Sabrina Rubin Erdely would write it. No, the bigger shock is that the WaPo decided to challenge the Rolling Stone story by fact-checking the allegations of UVA-accuser “Jackie.”

If Erdely herself had tried a little harder to corroborate Jackie’s story, she would have found more or less what the WaPo discovered—that Jackie’s rape story didn’t hold up under close scrutiny—and Erdely’s sensational Rolling Stone article would probably never have been written. But Erdely chose not to do her job, no doubt because the story was just too good to not be true.

Everyone involved in this story was primed to believe it: Erdely, the assault awareness advocates at the university to whom Jackie told the tale, and Rolling Stone. The reporter and the paper should have known better and approached it more objectively.

The assault awareness students to whom Jackie spoke, on the other hand, are in a different position: they are younger people who have been brainwashed to believe they should always trust the woman who tells the story. But a certain amount of skepticism is always warranted, unfortunately: trust, but verify. The facts have to check out, and the truth is that some people lie about this sort of thing.

For accuser Jackie, her story began to get out of hand when Erdely came to the campus seeking someone to tell her such a tale [emphasis mine]:

Jackie told the Post that she had not intended to share her story widely until the Rolling Stone writer contacted her.

“If she had not come to me I probably would not have gone public about my rape,” said Jackie…

There are many such quotes in the WaPo article that are very telling about Jackie’s state of mind. She wanted to tell her story, but was reluctant to give out too many facts or to go to authorities, because she knew her veracity would be challenged. In fact, she even asked Erdely to leave her out of the article, but Erdely insisted on keeping her in [emphasis mine]:

Jackie said she finally relented and agreed to participate on the condition that she be able to fact-check her parts in the story, which she said Erdely accepted

Jackie said numerous times that she didn’t expect that an investigation the Charlottesville Police department opened after the article’s publication to result in any charges. She said she knew there was little if any forensic evidence that could prove the allegations two years after they occurred.

“I didn’t want a trial,” Jackie said. “I can’t imagine getting up on a defense stand having them tear me apart.”

…In an in-person interview Thursday, Jackie said that Rolling Stone account of her attack was truthful but also acknowledged that some details in the article might not be accurate.

Not fake, but inaccurate.

Anyone interviewing this woman should have perceived almost immediately that she was covered in red flags. But many people didn’t want to know and didn’t want to see—and are struggling now with the revelations:

“An advocate is not supposed to be an investigator, a judge or an adjudicator,” said Renda, a 2014 graduate who works for the university as a sexual violence awareness specialist. But as details emerge that cast doubt on Jackie’s account, Renda said, “I don’t even know what I believe at this point.”

…“We teach people to believe the victims. We know there are false reports but those are extraordinarily low.”

Renda said that research shows between 2 to 8 percent of all rape allegations are fabricated or unfounded.

That research probably isn’t all that meaningful, however, since false rape allegations that were successful would not be detected and would not tend to appear in the statistics. But 8 percent is not what one ought to call “extraordinarily low,” either. It is significant, approximately one in twelve.

For advocates such as Renda this story is one that potentially threatens their deepest assumptions. How to reconcile it with “we teach people to believe the victims”? The answer is not to always “believe the victims.” The proper stance is empathy combined with a hard-nosed skepticism, and careful attention to detail. One can assume nothing.

Not believing a true accusation is devastating to the accuser, and false accusations are devastating to the accused. It is not an easy task to sort it out, but calm objectivity is an absolute necessity.

It is possible to be sympathetic and respectful while not falling into the trap of unquestioning belief.

(Featured Image: Illustration by John Ritter via Rolling Stone)

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