UVA Rape Case Raises Issues of Journalistic Ethics

By Rhea Arora

Elm Staff Writer

Popular magazine “Rolling Stone” reported on an alleged rape incident at a fraternity party on the University of Virginia’s campus. “Rolling Stone” journalist Sabrina Rubin Erdely wrote an article on the account of the victim identified as Jackie. The report launched an involved police investigation into the specific incident and the reputation of Greek life in general.

The police, determined to find the perpetrators, could not find evidence to corroborate “Rolling Stone’s” telling of the story. Police Chief Tim Longo stated that the inability to find the evidence that the article spoke of did not mean that Jackie was not involved in a traumatic incident; it just means that no one truly knows what happened that night. One of Jackie’s suitemates, Emily Clark, wrote an op-ed in The Cavalier Daily reinforcing faith in Jackie’s story, giving details of her difficult time in trying to process the sexual assault. She spoke about Jackie’s change in demeanor and mental break down during December 2012 but did not know why until the story by “Rolling Stone” came out. Clark addressed the issue of “misplaced trust” in Jackie’s story, saying that Jackie was the one who was cheated by trusting “Rolling Stone” to report her story as truthfully as possible.

“Rolling Stone” Managing Editor Will Dana issued an article of apology on Dec. 5, saying that he was reaching out to Steve Coll, dean of the Columbia School of Journalism, to review the article. After a scathing review about “A Rape on Campus” and “Rolling Stone’s” journalistic practices in general regarding that piece of writing, Dana officially retracted the story. Incidents like these bring up two major concerns: the issue of honest, well-researched journalism and reporting rape crimes.

Many believe that Jackie’s story was fabricated and that the rape allegations against the fraternity were completely baseless. Accusations of making up rape incidents are very serious and damaging to survivors. The Huffington Post reported that rape is extremely underreported. Social stigma to fear of the victim’s mental and physical welfare are some of the reasons why rape is so vastly underreported. Pointing fingers at victims of sexual assault, be it men or women, sets precedents of disbelief in a victim’s story, something that feminists, anti-rape, and human rights social movements are trying very hard to do away with. Coll appeared in a recent interview with Melissa Block on NPR to discuss his findings on the article. When asked about how journalists can prevent retraumatizing victims of sexual assault while also getting the necessary information, he said, “There has to be a mutual understanding of what journalism requires without having that be traumatizing to the survivor… Another is that you have to be prepared as a journalist to walk away if your subject isn’t ready for that kind of reporting.”

In an era dominated by the media and Internet, it is becoming increasingly important to have well-researched opinions. Once something is published in the media, it is difficult to take down without backlash, especially on sensitive topics such as sexual assault. Prestigious magazines such as “Rolling Stone” set high standards of writing and journalism ethics, but with over-sights as massive as the article “A Rape on Campus,” the fall is hard and painful. It takes more for an already credible journalistic source to build its reputation from the ashes, because the blind-faith people had in its writing is completely destroyed. The need for unbiased, fact-corroborated stories is present now more than ever.

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