The Rolling Stone piece “A Rape on Campus” is a huge story in all senses of the word. It is long and expansive, documenting a culture at the University of Virginia that seems to shrug off sexual assault. It has also helped kick off a broad national conversation about fraternity culture, rape on campus, and whether our colleges and universities are equipped to adjudicate alleged sex crimes. At its heart, though, Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s article is about a single event: an orchestrated gang rape of a woman named Jackie. In the course of 9,000 words, Erdely chronicles an administration’s tepid response to a terrible crime. But what the piece is missing is one small thing: that single, standard sentence explaining that the alleged perpetrators of the crime deny it, or don’t deny it, or even that they could not be reached for comment. It’s often a boring sentence, one that comes off as boilerplate to readers, but it’s absolutely necessary, because it tells readers you tried your best to get the other side of the story. You notice when it isn’t there.
Last week, we invited Erdely on the DoubleX Gabfest to talk about the story. I asked her in several different ways if she knew anything about the seven men whom Jackie accused of committing this crime, or if she had talked to them. In the story, Jackie’s roommate at the time, Rachel Soltis, tells Erdely, “Me and several other people know exactly who did this to her.” Jackie says she still sees “Drew,” the guy she alleges orchestrated the gang rape, walking around campus sometimes. (Jackie is the alleged victim’s real first name. Drew is Erdely’s pseudonym for the alleged perpetrator.) Drew was on Jackie’s lifeguard shift at the university pool. He’s a junior and a member of the fraternity Phi Kappa Psi. An open campus is relatively friendly terrain for a reporter, and students’ email addresses aren’t difficult to track down. He couldn’t be that hard to find. And yet, based on Erdely’s answers, we couldn’t tell how hard she’d tried.
I reached out to them in multiple ways. They were kind of hard to get in touch with because [the fraternity’s] contact page was pretty outdated. But I wound up speaking … I wound up getting in touch with their local president, who sent me an email, and then I talked with their sort of, their national guy, who’s kind of their national crisis manager. They were both helpful in their own way, I guess.
If you want to hear Erdely talk about this and more, you can listen to her complete interview on the DoubleX Gabfest:
Erdely’s editor at Rolling Stone, Sean Woods, has confirmed that the writer did not talk to Drew or any of the men that Jackie alleges participated in the rape. “We did not talk to them. We could not reach them,” he told the Washington Post, although he added that the magazine verified their existence by talking to Jackie’s friends. “I’m satisfied that these guys exist and are real,” he said. “We knew who they were.”
In her story, Erdely does describe a scene in which Jackie’s “three best friends on campus” encounter her immediately after the alleged incident. The way Erdely writes that scene, it’s impossible to know if she’s getting the quotes directly from the friends (whose names have been changed in the story) or from Jackie’s recollection of what they said. Mostly, it seems to be the latter. Here, they discuss whether they should take Jackie to the hospital:
Their other two friends, however, weren’t convinced. “Is that such a good idea?” she recalls Cindy asking. “Her reputation will be shot for the next four years.” Andy seconded the opinion, adding that since he and Randall both planned to rush fraternities, they ought to think this through.
We don’t hear how Cindy recalls that same conversation, one that is pretty damning to Cindy.
Both Erdely and Woods have said that they decided to tell the story mostly from Jackie’s point of view. As Woods told the Post, “We were telling Jackie’s story. It’s her story.”
In that same Post piece, Erdely seems protective of Jackie. She said that she did not identify the men in the article “by Jackie’s request. She asked me not to name the individuals because she’s so fearful of them. That was something we agreed on.” Erdely would not say, however, whether she knew who they were. “I can’t answer that,” she told the Post. “This was a topic that made Jackie extremely uncomfortable.”
Erdely is a very accomplished magazine writer. She has written about many difficult subjects before, including an OB-GYN who was convicted of fondling his patients. (She didn’t talk to him either, but she did include a sentence saying he could not be reached for comment. Plus, he had already been convicted.) She must know the basic rules of reporting a story like this: You try very, very hard to reach anyone you’re accusing of something. You use any method you can think of, including the jerk reporter move of making a surprise, in-person confrontation. (Sarah Koenig, the host of the Serial podcast, provides a good example of reporter due diligence.) You try especially hard if you are writing about something as serious as a gang rape accusation. Sometimes, what results is a more layered version of the truth. Sometimes, the answer you get makes the accused seem even guiltier (e.g., Bill Cosby, asserting through a lawyer, that all the dozens of accusations against him are “fabricated”).
If you fail to reach the person, you write a sentence explaining that you tried—and explaining how you tried—as a way to assure your readers that you gave the person a chance to defend themselves. We’re not sure why Rolling Stone didn’t think that was necessary.
Why aren’t we sure what Rolling Stone thought? Here is our standard sentence: I emailed and called Erdely to ask her some follow-up questions after she appeared on the DoubleX Gabfest, but she sent me to Rolling Stone’s public relations person. Woods, her editor, said he was “done talking about the story” and sent a statement from Rolling Stone that read, in part, “Through our extensive reporting and fact-checking, we found Jackie to be entirely credible and courageous and we are proud to have given her disturbing story the attention it deserves.”
It could be that Erdely did try her hardest to reach the alleged rapists. Or it could be that she didn’t, out of deference to Jackie. We’ve interviewed many of Jackie’s friends, including some who were quoted in the Rolling Stone story. They verified that Jackie did get very upset when Erdely wanted to find out more about the alleged assailants. Sara Surface, a good friend of Jackie’s and a member of One Less, a victim advocacy group at UVA, had the impression that Jackie’s reaction was “extreme” when Erdely pressed her—meaning that Jackie became so terrified that she reconsidered going public with her story, even anonymously. If that’s true, then Erdely was in a tough position. Push too hard and she might lose Jackie. But not pushing harder has created a whole new nightmare.
Various writers and media outlets have now started to pick apart Erdely’s reporting, as well as the details of Jackie’s story as reported by Rolling Stone. That’s because, even by the standards of horrific, despicable frat behavior, this story stands out. Jackie, who says she was sober, was allegedly led upstairs by her date into a dark room, where seven men allegedly raped her as others egged them on. She tells Erdely that she was smashed into a glass coffee table and raped by a beer bottle. Drew, who had invited her to the frat party as his date, allegedly stood by and orchestrated the whole thing. When he later ran into Jackie, she says that he told her he’d had a “great time.” That’s not expected behavior even by the standards of rapists. That’s psychotic.
Caitlin Flanagan, who did an investigation into bad behavior at fraternities for the Atlantic, emailed us:
In all my time studying fraternity rapes for my own essay, I didn’t come across a single report of anything like this. I did find reports of women who were raped by multiple men on one night—but those always involved incapacitation, either by alcohol or a drugged drink. And I did also find accounts of violent, push-down rape of the kind in the essay—but those were always by one member, not a bunch of members. (In fact, many of that kind—now that I think about it—were committed by non-members, or by visiting former members). But a planned gang rape, without alcohol or drugs, and keyed to initiation—I have never seen a case like that. Nor have I seen penetration with a foreign object—I’ve seen plenty of that committed by brothers to pledges as hazing, but I haven’t seen it in sexual assault cases. I’m sure it’s happened, but again—as part of a ritualized gang rape ... Never anything like it.
To be clear, just because Flanagan hasn’t heard of anything like this before doesn’t mean it didn’t happen exactly as Jackie describes. But with a story this extreme, you want the assurance that a journalist did everything she possibly could to verify its accuracy. What’s at stake here is not just a small point of journalistic standards. As Flanagan pointed out to us in her email, if the story doesn’t check out, “it is going to cause so much trouble in the area of reforming fraternity sexual assault, I can’t even tell you.” At the moment, there is significant pressure to enact those reforms. At a faculty meeting on Tuesday, UVA President Teresa Sullivan said she is considering having both the Charlottesville and the university police do a joint patrol of the fraternities, as well as holding more classes on Fridays. For her part, Flanagan has recently been invited to speak to a large gathering of fraternity advisers about addressing fraternity rape. Inviting her, she says, is a “huge opening” in their thinking. “But if this turns out to be a hoax, it is going to turn the clock back on their thinking 30 years.”
We found Jackie and she agreed to talk to us. Then, at the last minute she backed out. She had already been interviewed by the Washington Post for a story that has not yet run, and she had picked up that the media had some doubts—something that she is understandably sensitive to. What became clear from talking to Jackie’s supporters at UVA is that the community of victim advocates operates by a very specific code. “The first thing as a friend we must say is, ‘I believe you and I am here to listen,’ ” says Brian Head, president of UVA’s all-male sexual assault peer education group One in Four. Head and others believe that questioning a victim is a form of betrayal, because it will make her feel judged and all the more reluctant to ever speak about what happened. None of the people we spoke to had asked Jackie who the men were, and in fact none of them had any idea. They did not press her on any details about the incident.
“A lot of the reason why we aren’t questioning Jackie urgently about who the names are or anything like that is because our role as advocates and friends is really just to support the survivor,” says Alexandria Pinkleton, another member of One Less and a friend of Jackie’s who was also quoted in the Rolling Stone story. “If she doesn’t want to give us the names, that’s not something were going to press her for.” This is a point of tension between Erdely and the activists, one that is apparent in her conclusion. Erdely blames the UVA administration, “which chose not to act on her allegations in any way.” The activists, however, think the administration was correct not to pressure Jackie into pressing charges before she was ready.
We agree with Erdely here. If a college administrator hears about a gang rape, the first thing she should do is call the police. The irony here is that Erdely fell into the same trap as UVA administrators: They both deferred to the victim’s sensitivities to such an extent that they failed to out the alleged rapists.
The university told us it has asked the Charlottesville Police Department to investigate the alleged incident described in Erdely’s article. So far there haven’t been any public confirmations or denials. There may never be. Jackie is firm in her story, and it’s hard to prove that something didn’t happen. An interview with the alleged perpetrators wouldn’t necessarily constitute proof either way. What it would provide is additional data, information that could help us assess what might have happened in that fraternity house.
At the end of that interview on the DoubleX Gabfest, I asked Erdely how she might defend Jackie in court—what evidence she would present if the case went to trial. Erdely said she wasn’t a lawyer but “given the degree of her trauma, there’s no doubt in my mind that something happened to her that night. What exactly happened I don’t know. I wasn’t in that room. I don’t know.” That’s the worst part of being a reporter. You are often not in the room. But in this case, seven other people allegedly were. Where are they?