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Rolling Stone just wrecked an incredible year of progress for rape victims

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Rolling Stone flunks Reporting 101 and rape victims are going to have a worse time because of it

Rolling Stone

2014 was an incredible year for discussions about consent and rape. Street harassment, sexism, and rape on campus came to the forefront of our shared conversation through social media, protests, and all forms of journalism. And it worked. People who otherwise would never have talked about rape culture engaged in the conversation. I've never heard so many men use the word "consent." It doesn't matter that the discussions were polarizing, or that many continue to debate rape culture's existence. The discussion happened, and it's largely because women used the power of the internet to make it so.

Rolling Stone's "note" blames the victim, not the reporting

That's why today's admission by Rolling Stone that a spine-chilling account of a rape at the University of Virginia may not have been entirely factual is so upsetting. Instead of owning up to an incredible number of unforgivable reporting mistakes, a magazine that I once respected professionally decided to blame the victim. Worse, Rolling Stone did it by explaining that their reporters and editors skipped some crucial reporting steps to try to prevent victim-blaming from happening in the first place:

In the face of new information, there now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie's account, and we have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced. We were trying to be sensitive to the unfair shame and humiliation many women feel after a sexual assault and now regret the decision to not contact the alleged assaulters to get their account.

Rolling Stone's original story of Jackie's rape at the University of Virginia was terrifying. According to the article, she was gang-raped at a frat party after her date took her up to a room full of fraternity members. But according to The Washington Post's investigation of Jackie's story, both the article's author Sabrina Rubin Erdely and Rolling Stone's fact-checkers failed to verify if a party had taken place on the day she said the rape happened. Moreover, Jackie said that her date was a member of the fraternity throwing the party — a fact that The Washington Post says is false. (The Washington Post's own story originally contained a large error as well: it said that Jackie had never met the man in question. But that claim only came from the man himself, and it was later removed from the Post's article since it can't be verified.) Rolling Stone failed to check both these facts.

The problem isn't Jackie — it's Rolling Stone

Finally, as Vox's Sarah Kliff points out, Jackie told The Washington Post that Erdely and Rolling Stone decided to go ahead and print the story even though she wanted to be taken out. If that's true, Rolling Stone made a grave mistake, because "a story where the main source tried to back out and the other participants were never interviewed is not a solid story," Kliff writes.

It's possible that Jackie's story is fabricated. It's also possible that some parts of her story are true while others aren't. But it's also possible that she was raped by multiple men. And her misrepresentation of certain parts of her story may or may not be her fault. Victims of rape experience a kind of trauma that's hard to imagine for anyone who's never experienced it; sometimes their minds act protectively by blocking memories out. Finally, as Gabriel Dante pointed out to me on Twitter, Jackie may also have altered some facts to ensure that she wasn't identified by readers once the story was published. But none of that matters. The problem here is not Jackie — it's Rolling Stone.

The credibility of rape victims will be put into question for years

From a journalistic standpoint, it would not have been a stretch to check if the party had actually taken place. It would not have been a stretch to check if the man Jackie said was egging her rapists on was a member of the fraternity. All of this could have taken place without actually talking to the perpetrators — interviews that Erdely insists were intentionally left out of her reporting because Jackie asked her not to speak to her alleged rapists, and because her story looked solid.

If Erdely had checked these plot points early on, it's possible that doing so would have halted her reporting altogether. But because those basic reporting steps didn't take place, the credibility of rape victims will be put into question for years to come. And all the incredibly difficult discussions that have taken place over the past year — discussions that gave me hope — are now at risk.

victim-blaming is America's favorite pastime

Erdely spoke eloquently about her Rolling Stone piece on Brian Lehrer's radio show in late November. During the show, Erdely responded to a caller who claimed that rape reports are often unfounded — she said "that's actually categorically not true," and she's right. On average, Erdely says, only 8 to 10 percent of rape reports are false, which means that something like "92 percent of them are actually true." But because she published a sloppy story that is at least partially incorrect, Erdely and Rolling Stone will help perpetuate the dangerous and damaging myth that women lie about rape.

I'd like to think that Rolling Stone isn't powerful enough to walk back the strides we've made in talking about rape and consent this year. I'm hoping that the next few weeks will show that the American public knows who to blame in this fiasco. (Hint: it's Rolling Stone, by managing editor Will Dana's own admission). But the truth is that victim-blaming is America's favorite pastime. The families of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner know that all too well. And now, because Rolling Stone failed as a news organization and then made things worse with a terribly vague, accusatory, and hypocritical "note" of concern, Jackie and the thousands of women who suffer sexual assault each year will likely be put through hell.

Update 12/7: Rolling Stone has, as of Saturday, updated the language of its note to readers, taking full responsibility for its incomplete reporting and acknowledging the subsequent reporting done by The Washington Post. The note now adds, "These mistakes are on Rolling Stone, not on Jackie." The original piece has not been updated or corrected.