A 2015 study done by the Association of American Universities (AAU) across 27 universities found that nearly 23.1 percent of undergraduate female students have experienced “sexual assault and sexual misconduct due to physical force, threats of physical force, or incapacitation.” For 10.8 percent, the unwanted contact also includes penetration or oral sex. Among individuals, only five percent to 28 percent of the incidences were reported to campus officials or law enforcement, depending on the specific type of assault. Reasons for not reporting incidents included feelings of embarrassment, being ashamed or that it was too emotionally difficult. Also included was the feeling that nothing would be done about it.
These are results echoed across the country by comparable polls and are some of the greatest concerns for students in America. While the media has been an ally for students, calling out offenders and injustice, not all news is good news, especially when facts are ignored.
Rolling Stone’s Sabrina Erdely published an article titled “A Rape on Campus” on Nov. 19, 2014. The article tells the story of a University of Virginia (UVA) freshmen, Jackie, who was on a date with a fellow, older, student, Haven Monahan at a party at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house on Sept. 28, 2012. The story continues with Jackie being led up to a bedroom and was raped by six members of the fraternity, plus Haven. After these events transpired, Jackie ran away and met several friends, one of whose names is Ryan.
After Rolling Stone published this article, UVA suspended all fraternity activity as protests began and UVA administrator, Nicole Eramo, received hundreds of angry letters and emails.
Rolling Stone’s article started to unravel when other newspapers started investigating their story, including the fact that there was no party at Phi Kappa Psi on the alleged night. Further investigations led to the fact that Haven Monahan is not an enrolled student at UVA and actually never existed as he is a fictional character made up by Jackie.
The article also included quotes from three of Jackie’s friends, including Ryan. Later interviews revealed that Rolling Stone never contacted two of the three friends and the third never wrote back. Furthermore, the story contains a secondary quote from Jackie about Eramo claiming she said that the school was not better at publicizing sexual assault statistics “because nobody wants to send their daughter to the rape school." This was also later proved to be a false quote.
Jackie never made any reports to the police nor administration and the story only reached Rolling Stone via a leak, which is also why UVA only banned fraternity activity after the story was published.
After Rolling Stone’s falsified reporting was exposed, Eramo sued the paper on defamation charges and the jury voted unanimously in her favor. Rolling Stone will be forced to pay upwards of $7.5 million and face another suit from Phi Kappa Psi for $25 million. The original article has since been taken down from their website.
While the First Amendment guarantees the freedom of the press, there are laws to protect victims of false accusations. Because there was never any evidence against Eramo and because she suffered harm from the article, she was able to use the defamation law as a way to seek retribution. And we should have no issue with this nor the severity of the punishments Rolling Stone faces.
What we should have a problem with is those who report false assault cases and those who publish them, especially when they do not stand up to the faintest “investigation” which journalists are trusted to make. By reporting such stories without vetting evidence, you make it more difficult for actual victims to get justice. You make it less likely that actual victims will seek help because they believe the system is against them. While journalism is supposed to be the voice of the people, journalism like this silences the voices who need it the most.
David Csordas is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.