Generally speaking, I'm not the biggest fan of reporters. I realize that, as a writer, that's probably not the best thing to be saying publicly; however, I'm not talking about real journalists (or those whom I consider to be real journalists). I'm talking about your average reporter whose top and only real priority is to fill space in a periodical or program. The ones who won't report stories that are not newsworthy, unless there is a slow news day. The ones who hide behind words like "allegedly", and whose interests lie not in the truth of the story, but in the "truth" that is most interesting and will generate the most readers or viewers.
While the issues in Erdely's article have gotten a great deal of attention, this is unusual. Usually, when a reporter prints or reports something that is not true, or only half true, there are little to no repercussions. Most often, the victims of inaccurate reporting are not huge fraternities on prominent universities - usually they are just regular people, without the means to pursue legal recourse, and even if they do, often the best they can hope for is a tiny, fine-print retraction that no one will ever read, and that certainly will not undo the damage done to his or her reputation.
But this Rolling Stone article is far, far worse.
Erdely took a victim - a real victim, whether or not certain details of her account were inaccurate - and used her to victimize others. In printing a poorly researched story, the journalist damaged the reputation of organizations, which, it now appears, were not necessarily guilty. In the United States, we are all supposed to be innocent until proven guilty, but in the press, it works rather the opposite way. If a newspaper reports that you have been accused of something, guess what? In the public eye, you're guilty until or unless a jury acquits you, and if it never gets that far? I guess you're just screwed.
Perhaps most telling is the impetus for the story itself. According to Erdely, it was not because the victim, Jackie, came forward to her and wanted to get her story out. In fact, it was Erdely who sought out the victim. But not before she sought out "the right school to focus on". Erdely was looking for a story. In fact, she admits she "looked around at a number of different campuses" to find the story that would be most compelling - that would sell the most magazines, and under the auspices or helping a victim get her story heard, she used Jackie, exploited her, and in the end, the girl is being victimized all over again.
In fairness, it's likely that Erdely's heart was in the right place. I do not presume to know her thoughts, and it's very possible that her intention was simply to bring attention to a real issue, but in going about it the way she did, she brought the exact kind of attention this issue does not need.
Rolling Stone itself is no better. Their response when called out on this shoddy reporting? "...We have come to the conclusion that our trust in (Jackie) was misplaced." No, Rolling Stone, your trust in your staff member doing her due diligence was misplaced.
But even that is not the worst damage done by Erdely's article.
My deepest concern, and I expect others have expressed this as well, is that in printing this article without doing her due diligence as a journalist, Erdely has unintentionally given the green light to question the details of the account of each and every rape victim, and, in doing so, imply that their accuracy or inaccuracy proves or disproves that a crime did or did not occur.
This country has come a long way in how we respond to sexual assault victims, but it still has far to go. Erdely's screw-up will take us back decades. It will create an environment in which it becomes acceptable to presume the victim mistaken or lying unless she - or he - can prove every detail of his or her account. It will create an environment in which it becomes acceptable to question every detail, and further perpetuate the practice of "poking holes" in a victim's account of his or her own assault.
But memory is inherently flawed, and when you add a traumatic event such as rape, we simply cannot presume that inconsistencies imply the event did not occur at all.
Most importantly, it is difficult enough for victims of sexual assault to come forward. Girls between the ages of sixteen and nineteen are four times more likely to be victims of rape, attempted rape, or sexual assault. On average, 60% of sexual assaults go unreported. And it isn't difficult to understand why. Victims are three times more likely to suffer from depression, six times more likely to suffer from PTSD, and four times more likely to contemplate suicide. 73% of sexual assaults are perpetrated by someone the victim knows, and the stigma attached to sexual assault can follow victims indefinitely.
Worse still, there usually isn't a big up-side in coming forward. Only 3% or rapists actually serve jail time. And now we add an environment where victims will be questioned - likely interrogated - about every single detail they may or may not remember correctly. Because she may have been mistaken as to which fraternity he belonged to, or whether it was a formal function or just your run-of-the-mill frat party, but I assure you, she knows exactly who he is. She will never forget.
Now, false accusations happen. I'm not saying they don't, or that we should blindly believe every allegation ever made. But we must tread lightly. We must err on the side of believing the accuser, and investigating appropriately - NOT printing without investigating, and not ripping the victim apart. This entire situation has been grossly mishandled, and I fear nothing good can come of it.