Rolling Stone and UVA: The Intersection of Journalism and Victim Blaming

All of the recent stories of sexual abuse—from accusations against Bill Cosby, to Shia LaBeouf’s rape disclosure, to Rolling Stone’s piece about the brutal rape of a University of Virginia student—are bringing into focus a profound gap between what is known to science and what is believed by the general public. Our understanding of the neurobiology of trauma clearly shows that survivors cannot be expected to have perfect recall of traumatic events such as rape. A survivor’s story can contain discrepancies or gaps.

These problems can often lead people to dismiss and attack the person who has come forward as a liar. This pattern plays out often in investigations and/or prosecutions of sexual crime. I believe these cynical and destructive attacks survivors face are a primary reason why sexual violence is one of the least reported crimes in the US.

This issue goes straight to the heart of all the questions being raised about Rolling Stone‘s UVA article.

In short, Rolling Stone has chosen to shame the victim in an attempt to clear the magazine’s own name.

Subsequent investigations by other journalists have found discrepancies in “Jackie’s” story [the person at the center of the story who has said that she was brutally gang raped at a fraternity party]. These discrepancies have raised serious doubts as to whether or not “Jackie” was raped at all. Unfortunately, in response to questions and concerns about the piece, Rolling Stone chose to issue a statement laying the blame for all of this squarely at the feet of the victim herself. Will Dana, Managing Editor for Rolling Stone wrote, “our trust in her was misplaced.” In so doing, he has turned what had been an important discussion on campus sexual violence into a debate on false allegations and the credibility of one single person.

In short, Rolling Stone has chosen to shame the victim in an attempt to clear the magazine’s own name.

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Many in the victims’ rights community, and many journalists as well, have voiced their strong denunciation ofRolling Stone’s actions:

“Such an apology really does have a huge ripple effect, and unfortunately fuels people who disbelieve victims,” says Laura Dunn, a campus rape survivor and founder of the legal advocacy group SurvJustice. “I still believe something horrible happened to [Jackie].”

Others, like MSNBC’s Chris Hayes have been far more pointed in their critique:

But in the maelstrom of outrage on both sides of this controversy it is critically important to point out 2 things.

  1. First, the majority of people who come forward with disclosures of being raped or sexually abused are not lying. According to one recent study researchers determined between 2% and 10% of rape allegations to be false. While this means that a majority of rape allegations are not false, it also means that a portion of them are. Therefore it is critical for any media outlet to be truly cautious before taking a survivor’s story public.

  2. It is also vitally important that we not lose sight of the lived experiences of survivors and how that can impact what and how they disclose. While the experiences of those who are falsely accused are terrible, so too are the traumas that survivors face. Defending persons from false allegations does not justify flagrant attacks upon survivors whose stories do not align neatly with our expectations. There is no “model” victim, we have to take every survivor as they are. Lindy West, who last week wrote a powerful critique of Piers Morgan’s uninformed attacks on Shia LaBeouf’s rape disclosure, also made this crucially important observation in response to Rolling Stone’s retraction:

Survivors of rape and sexual abuse can often experience a kind of terror that can impact cognitive functioning. As Rebecca Ruiz wrote in Slate recently, “The brain’s prefrontal cortex—which is key to decision-making and memory—often becomes temporarily impaired. The amygdala, known to encode emotional experiences, begins to dominate, triggering the release of stress hormones and helping to record particular fragments of sensory information.”

There are many reasons why a survivor’s recollection of rape may be flawed:

  • First, the memory of a traumatic event can often be fragmented for a survivor. This can make it difficult to offer up a coherent and linear recollection of every specific detail of an attack.

  • In addition, many persons who experience a violent attack can often literally freeze in the face of trauma (as opposed to the more commonly presumed reactions of fighting to fleeing). This “freezing” can be a form of extreme dissociation in which a person disconnects from the moment. This impedes their ability to recollect clearly some of the details. In addition, this freezing can often be misinterpreted as giving consent to a perpetrator by investigators who conclude that if a victim didn’t put up a fight, then they must have wanted it.

  • Lastly, every detail in a victim’s account need not be factual in order for an allegation to be found true. If a perpetrator tells a victim a detail about themselves (say that they are a member of a certain fraternity), it is always possible that the perpetrator was lying in order make the victim seem less credible.

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Good journalism requires skepticism, critical analysis, and a willingness to confirm details. We owe it to persons or institutions who might be accused of wrongdoing the basic burden of getting the facts right before making them public. We also owe that burden to the survivors who stand to be harmed even more if the story they shared is shown to be lacking in places.

We owe it to persons or institutions who might be accused of wrongdoing the basic burden of getting the facts right before making them public. We also owe that burden to the survivors who stand to be harmed even more if the story they shared is shown to be lacking in places.

In some circumstances, this could even be of great service to a survivor who not only had their bodies violated, but also may have had their memory broken and battered as well. It is possible to independently investigate and clarify the truth of what actually occurred without compounding the harm that a survivor of rape has experienced. This requires that journalists who report on sexual violence and other forms of trauma become better educated about the impact of trauma on survivors lest they cause even greater harm.

Responsibility for the damage done here still falls squarely on Rolling Stone and not Jackie. Rolling Stone made a mistake in running the story without properly investigating and corroborating the details, and then doubled down on that by throwing Jackie under the bus. Further by running the piece (over Jackie’s wishes to be removed from the article it now appears) without fact-checking it the magazine not only co-opted a survivor’s pain for their own purposes, they have done her, and potentially many other survivors, even more harm.

Instead of people talking about Jackie’s courage, and the problem posed by campus sexual violence, we are forced to yet again fight to have survivors be heard and believed. Rolling Stone’s dismissal of Jackie, and the subsequent attacks on survivors’ credibility this has caused, is sadly another form of victimization with which survivors and their allies are all too familiar. It is also one that we require everyone’s help to address at the same time we engage in the battle to end sexual violence itself. This piece orginally published at Good Men Project

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