'Rolling Stone' screwed up big time — it doesn't mean we can ignore campus sexual assault

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Almost two years after Rolling Stone first published its discredited, now-retracted article "A Rape on Campus," a federal court jury has found the magazine and journalist Sabrina Rubin Erdely guilty Friday of defaming a University of Virginia administrator portrayed in the piece.

UVA administrator Nicole Eramo, formerly an associate dean of students, who oversaw reports of sexual violence at the school when the article was published, sued the magazine and Erdely shortly after the article was retracted. 

The retraction and ensuing lawsuit came after more robust reporting revealed that Jackie, the woman whose alleged gang rape was the focus of Erdely's piece, had fabricated key details of her account. The article was and has continued to be lambasted in court, in headlines, on campus and around dinner tables. It's sort of like what happens to rape survivors' stories all the time.

Sabrina Rubin Erdely, who wrote the discredited article "A Rape on Campus," was found guilty of defamation.Source: Steve Helber/AP
Sabrina Rubin Erdely, who wrote the discredited article "A Rape on Campus," was found guilty of defamation.  Steve Helber/AP

Of course, what happened with "A Rape on Campus" was and remains different. Rolling Stone did publish a grossly inaccurate and ethically dubious 9,000-word piece of sloppy journalism — so sloppy, it feels like a misnomer to call Erdely's work "journalism" at all.

As the Columbia Journalism Review found during an independent review of the article's reporting process, Rolling Stone neglected basic tenets of journalism and well-known best practices, relying entirely on Jackie without confirming key details. Accounts of Erdely's reporting process show a journalist who failed to provide adequate information to her subjects, including Eramo and UVA president Teresa Sullivan, and who instead gamed sources for the right angles.

We know how and why all of this happened: As some of Erdely's earliest notes reveal, she was looking for "a single, emblematic college rape case that would show 'what it's like to be on campus now ... where not only is rape so prevalent but also that there's this pervasive culture of sexual harassment/rape culture,'" according to the Columbia Journalism Review. It appears also Erdely did want a school administrator, who could've come from any number of schools, since so many deal (or don't deal) with the problem of sexual assault, to play the villain — this was a crucial part of Eramo's argument in the lawsuit — undergirding the jury's decision to find her guilty of defamation with actual malice.

Reality could never fit so neatly into Erdely's predetermined plot. The "perfect victim" and archetypal rape story she selected ended up coming from Jackie, who lied — but who does appear to have experienced a traumatic event. The villain ended up being Eramo, who was portrayed as cold-hearted instead of competent — but who was also part of an administration that is not without its failures in addressing campus sexual violence. 

The institution ended up being UVA, where sexual assault has happened and where it has been mishandled, if not as grotesquely as Rolling Stone characterized it. It is one of a seemingly endless number of campuses where it will continue to happen if our culture continues to respond to the article as we have.

While we cannot say definitively that something traumatic didn't happen to Jackie, there is plenty of evidence that what she told Erdely, Eramo and others didn't happen either. That fact should not cast doubt on other victims, and yet the public has continued to struggle with believing women who say they were raped. Egregious as the story was, it set out to tackle a real problem — one that plagued college campuses long before Erdely ever visited UVA, and one that has continued to appear in the news since "A Rape on Campus" was retracted.

Nicole Eramo, a UVA administrator, sued 'Rolling Stone' for defamation over her portrayal in the now-detracted article.Source: Steve Helber/AP
Nicole Eramo, a UVA administrator, sued 'Rolling Stone' for defamation over her portrayal in the now-detracted article.  Steve Helber/AP

There is a reason Rolling Stone sent a reporter on the hunt for such a salacious story. It's the same reason the federal government is investigating scores and scores of colleges and universities for violating Title IX guidelines for investigating sexual assault. It's the same reason why students have organized rallies and walked around campuses with mattresses on their backs; why they turn to anonymous forums to share gruesome experiences; why so many others keep their stories to themselves. 

It's the same reason Mic, this very website, has published 170 stories about campus sexual assault since Erdely published hers: Because rape happens on college campuses all the time, and hardly anyone seems to give a shit.

Egregious as the story was, it set out to tackle a real problem — one that plagued college campuses long before Erdely ever visited UVA...

Jackie was not the only survivor identified or quoted in Erdely's article, and her alleged rape was not the only sexual assault described in the piece. There were other UVA students who told Rolling Stone they were violated on campus, and their stories did not unravel with Jackie's. Eramo was, a jury decided, defamed, but her misrepresentation does not absolve her or other administrators on other campuses for any or every time they failed the victims they're meant to protect — for kicking them out of school when they report their rapes or for retaliating against them when they demand justice for themselves.

Universities' failure to properly adjudicate sexual assault cases is, in part, the result of failure — sometimes on the part of administrators, like an associate dean of students — to understand how to treat trauma victims, and grasp how sexual violence impacts their lives after the fact. But school administrators aren't alone in having a poor idea of how to respond to survivors; society doesn't know what to do with them either. So, we ignore them or blame them.

That's why Rolling Stone tried to piece together the juiciest story it could, cherry-picking and cutting corners to get details that were, ultimately, too good to be true. The magazine wanted to publish the most salacious story it could in hopes it would explode exactly as it did — and that story needed to follow a narrative arc that doesn't exist in real life. 

Erdely wrote the article she wanted to write, whether to highlight a pressing issue or simply to sell magazines. In doing so, she defamed an administrator and university that might not be blameless when it comes to handling campus sexual violence. She made a mess of a problem rape culture already encourages people to ignore, because the reality of sexual assault doesn't fit cleanly with our expectations. 

We want perfect victims of unspeakable crimes, committed by monsters and neglected by advocates; we want Jackie and Eramo the way Erdely's story presented them. The problem is, that's not what a rape on campus usually looks like. But we wouldn't know that because, as Rolling Stone proved, it takes much more drama to make us care.