What it means to investigate

Incorrect Rolling Stone article raises systematic questions

Last November Rolling Stone magazine published a 9,000-word piece detailing a brutal gang rape at the University of Virginia and the presumed-incompetent investigation the school conducted into the incident. The story set the world on fire. Colleges, administrators and student leaders all, in their capacities, claimed they would respond to the article with a renewed focus on the importance of sexual assault investigations and prosecutions on the college campus.

On our own campus, the university response was one of confidence, that our system didn’t allow for such incompetence to occur—that the tragedy that happened at UVA would never happen at Case Western Reserve University. The Office of Greek Life also responded with a months-long focus group conversation about a new plan to help stave off what was perceived as an increasing number of sexual misconduct incidents on our own campus—incidents often traced back to fraternity men. Here at CWRU, we took steps we thought were necessary to combat the horrible tragedy in Charlottesville.

The problem is, it was all made up.

Earlier this week, the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) completed a nearly five-month investigation into Rolling Stone’s journalistic practices and their fact-checking. Days after the initial story broke, publications like the Washington Post and Slate Magazine had called out apparent flaws in the reporting. They were flaws that called into question the veracity of the whole piece.

Long story short, the CJR report blasted Rolling Stone’s lack of proper fact-checking and editorial oversight. It cited numerous occasions of missed cues and leads that could have revealed the discrepancies. Rolling Stone simply relied on a single source, the victim, for too much.

In their general recommendations for the future, CJR wrote about the need to question the facts and ensure credulity even when talking with a victim. “Over the years, trauma counselors and survivor support groups have helped journalists understand the shame attached to rape and the powerlessness and self-blame that can overwhelm victims, particularly young ones. Because questioning a victim’s account can be traumatic, counselors have cautioned journalists to allow survivors some control over their own stories. This is good advice. Yet it does survivors no good if reporters documenting their cases avoid rigorous practices of verification. That may only subject the victim to greater scrutiny and skepticism.”

This is exactly the problem colleges have been dealing with inadequately over the last few years. Instead of rigorously getting to the bottom of the story, colleges investigating alleged assaults and misconduct violations often gloss over the facts and are unable to gather others. They lack any authority to force any person to talk to them, even the accused, let alone someone who might let them off. While this might, to a reasonable person, promote caution, college administrators take it as their duty to press onward.

Verification and rigorous distinctions about the facts lead to clarity. Anyone who has read the CJR report will know that it is likely something happened to the girl in the original story. It probably wasn’t at a fraternity house, at least not at the one she alleged. It probably wasn’t some sort of hazing ritual. But something probably happened. Her original report alleged less than the gang rape she described in such vivid detail. Chances are that the lesser act did happen. “Jackie” was actually hurt. But that doesn’t matter anymore. Any chance she had of retribution or justice (depending on your view) disappeared when she decided to embellish.

The case of Rolling Stone’s failure to verify is easily recognized as the same issue that plagues campuses. Instead of allowing all students to speak their side of the story, the administration is not interested in hearing that. That’s not their job.

Some people recognize this. The Fraternity and Sorority Political Action Committee (FSPAC), recently began lobbying Congress and states in an effort to restrict any investigations of sexual assault to be handled by the police. This would ensure that facts are rigorously pursued and the story is understood. It is important to note this is not a small effort. Both the National Interfraternity Council and the National Panhellenic Council, the governing bodies for fraternities and sororities, respectively, joined the effort. This is the kind of change we need to make. Internal efforts to prevent problems will never solve the issue. Comprehensive reform that ensures a rigorous review might be more painful, but we are all the better for it.

Andrew Breland is a weekly opinion columnist for The Observer. Contact him at awb69@case.edu.