Despair sank in as I scrolled obsessively through my Twitter feed yesterday afternoon. It seemed like everyone I followed — activists, Baltimore residents, and journalists alike — were obsessively watching the public flogging of Rolling Stone's blockbuster piece "A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA." The piece had been an enormous hit when it was published three weeks ago, but yesterday it seemed to be falling apart.
First there was the Washington Post's brutal hit piece, calling the details of the alleged perpetrator's identity into question. Then Rolling Stone's Managing Editor Will Dana published a note "to our readers," saying that "there now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie's account, and we have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced." And then, on Twitter, journalists were declaring Jackie's story entirely false and making glib remarks — while activists defended Jackie and anguished over the fact that Rolling Stone's reporting could now potentially set back the work to fight sexual assault on college campuses.
Even when I walked away from my desk to talk to my (almost exclusively male) co-workers in my newspaper office, other staffers were talking about how unbelievable Jackie's story was. One staffer hinted that perhaps another rape story our paper had covered was a false report. I walked away from him and back to my desk where I sat for hours with my hands shaking — from rage, from the awful weight of acknowledging how much journalism was failing sexual assault survivors, was failing me.
Being a sexual assault survivor and being a journalist are inextricably intertwined for me. When I escaped from an abusive relationship in college, my school newspaper became my saving grace, the one thing that I could cling to as I struggled to process the fact that someone I loved so much had stripped me of my sense of self-worth, my dignity, my safety. I never reported my abuser to the university, even though he was also a student there — my abuse did not leave the physical evidence that seems to be required for any hope of justice — and so, feeling unable to tell my own story, I focused my efforts into telling the stories of others. I wrote long news stories about sexual assault on my college campus, using reporting as a way to assure myself that I wasn't alone, that my abuse wasn't my fault. Along the way, I fell in love with journalism's power to comfort the afflicted and broadcast the truth, something that I thought I would never be able to do in my case of abuse.
My decision a year ago to join Know Your IX, an activist group committed to ending gender-based violence on college campuses, was borne out of the same urge to instigate change and reveal the truth of that violence. And that, too, has become thoroughly entwined in my identity as a journalist. I profile journalists and activists for Know Your IX and write guides for journalists on how to ethically report on gender-based violence; I write about sexual assault for the alt-weekly I now work for. For me, journalism and activism are two sides of the same (perhaps foolish) ideal: bringing the truth to light so that it may help others.
And yet, watching the disintegration of Rolling Stone's story has been a brutal reminder of the enormous chasm of understanding that too often stands between journalists and survivors. How could reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely be so insensitive as to refuse when Jackie asked to be taken out of the article? How can Rolling Stone be so cruel as to say Jackie was a liar, rather than own up to the numerous holes in its reporting? How could Richard Bradley, the editor-in-chief of Worth magazine, be so dismissive as to reduce the account to "apocryphal tropes"? How can journalism, the profession that I so deeply love and the field that saved me, be failing me as a survivor of the trauma that has so shaped the journalist I am?
Journalists calling for higher level of scrutiny in sexual assault stories, or suggesting that more cases be treated as potential false reports, are not improving journalism. They are falling back on rape-culture tropes and weighing survivors down with an even heavier burden of proof than the one we must already carry. Instead, they should be educating themselves on the realities of trauma and focusing on how to improve their reporting on sexual violence. The burden of this journalistic failure should be one for reporters to bear, not survivors.
Anna Walsh is the copy/Eats & Drinks editor at the alt-weekly Baltimore City Paper. In her spare time she works with Know Your IX, a national campaign to end campus sexual violence, and explores Charm City.
Contact Anna Walsh at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.