Rolling Stone did something that is extremely rare. It made a mistake on the University of Virginia rape story, it asked a high-powered university department of journalism to examine just how the mistake was made, it published the analysis, and it is taking the heat, including condemnations for not firing anybody, over its act of mea culpa. What is not brought up in all the discussion of journalistic practice is the matter of fad stories. When some trend occurs in society and gains public attention, news organizations rush to publish and broadcast stories giving examples of the trend in hopes of attracting readers, listeners, and viewers. Most fad stories, as they occur in the local media, are bumbling atrocities of literacy.
It is important for news organizations to examine trends. The Wall Street Journal developed a significant way to do this in what has come to be known as a Wall Street Journal style of story. The formula is to explain a trend with all the statistical and evidentiary materials that define its prevalence and then focus on an individual who has experienced the trend and show how it affects a real person in a real situation. That is what Rolling Stone was attempting to do with the account of Jackie being sexually assaulted at an alleged fraternity party. The report by the Columbia Journalism Department on what went wrong in the story does not mention the perils of fad stories, which is that some people will want to be part of a trend. Some of the best Wall Street Journal type stories were written during the agriculture crisis of the 1980s. They demonstrated in precise and moving ways how financing practices destroyed farms, families, and individuals. However moving the stories were, they did not stop the integrated industrialization of farming. But they made clear its effects.
Generally, when one finds specific people to illustrate the effects on them of a trend, the reporter has to get permission to open their lives to examination, verification, and risk some criticism. The reporter cannot rely upon the accounts of the individuals featured in a story, but must verify and fact check their accounts with multiple sources. That is where stories involving rape and sexual abuse present problems. Traditionally, journalists do not use the names of rape victims so not to cause further trauma, invade privacy, and expose the victim to public display, which tends to call down more abuse from the malevolent and vicious. In the Rolling Stone story the name Jackie was a pseudonym. In deference to Jackie’s sensitivities and privacy, the reporter chose not to check out accounts by her friends or the members of the fraternity which was allegedly involved in the reported rape.
A reporter for the Washington Post did some of the checking that the Rolling Stone reporter decided to forgo and found discrepancies between the Rolling Stone story and what witnesses recalled and documents recorded. The fraternity records showed that no party was held at its house on the evening Jackie said. No one could be found who fit the description of the person Jackie said she went to the party with. The Charlottesville police department investigated the matter and found no evidence to support that the incident occurred, which is another way of saying the account Jackie gave never seemed to have happened. Although some friends of Jackie’s said something seemed to have happened to her that night, her account was contradicted by their recollections of their encounter with her that night. The Columbia report also pointed out the discrepancies which would ordinarily cause a reporter to aggressively check out Jackie’s version of events.
That is where the dangers of falling into the conventions of a current fad topic come into play. Sexual assault on campuses and the handling of them by college officials is an au courant topic in the press right now, and Rolling Stone found an apparent victim who could give the magazine a first hand account. Rape gets special handling journalistically. The convention is that the victims are never named and circumstances that could lead to revealing their identities are obscured. The names of people whose associations with the victim are also given pseudonyms. In the commission of other c rimes, the victim and witnesses will be listed and reporters and fact-checkers can contact them directly and ask for their accounts of the events. In deference to the assumed trauma experienced by a rape victim, the right to privacy, and the sensitivities of the victim, probing questions are avoided. As the Columbia report details, this deference and the fear that Jackie might pull back from the story led the Rolling Stone reporter and editors to glossing over the journalistic process of establishing the facts. Part of the current stance toward reporting on sexual assaults is that the word of the victim should be accepted and not questioned. The assumption is that if an alleged victim reports a sexual assault, it happened. The hard questioning and fact-checking that goes into the making a case for other crimes is not applied in sexual assault cases.
Although, much of the current controversy about sexual assault and its handling by university officials involves prestigious campuses, places such as South Dakota and Aberdeen also have their stories and concerns.
Northern State University had such case with tragic consequences a quarter century ago in 1989. Students in dormitories got a party going that started in one dorm and ended up in the dormitory that shared a parking lot with the building my office was in. A young woman reported that she was sexually assaulted and three young men were charged with rape. My knowledge of incident comes from news reports and transcripts of court trials. My spouse was a reporter at the time and covered the proceedings.
The young woman got very drunk and, according to testimony of witnesses, exhibited some aggressively sexual behavior with some of the men at the party in a dorm room. She was carried out of the room to a car in the parking lot where the behavior between her and some young men continued. Other party goers were gathered around the car as reveling spectators while what we once termed heavy petting was taking place in the car. There were many witnesses of both sexes.
Eventually the young woman was driven to her dormitory and put to bed. When she awoke she realized she had been part of a spectacle and told a dorm counselor that she thought she had been sexually assaulted. The counselor sent the report up to the office of student services and an investigation began. Three young men were identified as being in the car with the young woman, were expelled from the campus, and the matter was turned over to the police, who later issued arrest warrants for the young men charging them with rape of a woman too incapacitated to give consent to sexual acts.
One of the young men blew his heart out with a deer rifle, which is how I became familiar with the case. I was an officer in the faculty union and acted as the grievance officer. My job in that role was to insure that due process was carefully observed in any matters involving faculty discipline or grievances. Two professors who had had the suicide victim in class inquired if the expulsion of the young men from campus before any hearings were held was consistent with the rules of due process. One of the professors said that the young man could be a bit of a jerk at times, but that the handling of the matter in a way that resulted in self-extermination did not seem to be in the best interests of the young woman, the young men, other students, and the university in general. As the procedures applied to faculty for disciplinary matters were a matter of a negotiated contract, they have no application to students. The handling of student matters is left to the discretion of the administration. However, we agreed that the summary expulsion of the students sent a signal that the university had determined them guilty before a full investigation had been made and appropriate hearings held, and that did not reflect well on the university. The university appeared more interested in dispensing punishment than engaging in the due process of justice. I consented to make this point to the administration and was told, in effect, to buzz off; it wasn’t any of the faculty’s business. It was clear to me that the administration just wanted no part in the whole matter and handed it off to the police.
The charges against the remaining two men were carried forward in court. One young man accepted a plea bargain and received a sentence. The third young man insisted upon going to trial. As time approached for the trial in August 1990, feelings were heating up. Death threats were made, according to the police, but by whom against whom was never clear. When the trial commenced, police guarded the court house doors and inspected people going in and out for weapons.
The trial revealed that the young woman had a history of psychological instability. It also revealed how prevalent alcohol had become as a factor in the social life on campus. And it showed that colleges are not equipped to handle the misadventures of their students. What was essentially a drunken brawl which certainly required disciplinary measures had turned into a criminal case with the resulting death of a student.
The third young man was acquitted of the same charges as filed again the young man who killed himself and the young man who was sentenced on a plea bargain.
The misapplication of the processes that lead to justice were a subject for years among the faculty. The administration did not talk about it.
Now the fraternity that was accused of giving the party at which Jackie claimed she was sexually assaulted is suing Rolling Stone in an effort to deal with unjust accusations against its members. Justice requires that students both be safe from assault and from false accusations.
Justice is not as popular a subject right now as sexual assault. And going for the popular is what led Rolling Stone to publish a story for which no truth was verifiable.