The Changing Conversation That Shouldn’t Be Changing

I was on my planning period yesterday and took a moment to load up the front page of The Washington Post.  Right there was the headline “Key Elements of Rolling Stone’s U-Va. Gang Rape Allegations in Doubt.”  You’ve probably heard about the article by now, but if you haven’t, it goes into detail about the partial retraction that Rolling Stone issued to their recent article about rape at The University of Virginia, which has made huge headlines where I live and across the country.  Will Dana’s Rolling Stone retraction reads as follows:

To Our Readers:

Last month, Rolling Stone published a story titled “A Rape on Campus” by Sabrina Rubin Erdely, which described a brutal gang rape of a woman named Jackie at a University of Virginia fraternity house; the university’s failure to respond to this alleged assault – and the school’s troubling history of indifference to many other instances of alleged sexual assaults. The story generated worldwide headlines and much soul-searching at UVA. University president Teresa Sullivan promised a full investigation and also to examine the way the school responds to sexual assault allegations.

Because of the sensitive nature of Jackie’s story, we decided to honor her request not to contact the man she claimed orchestrated the attack on her nor any of the men she claimed participated in the attack for fear of retaliation against her. In the months Erdely spent reporting the story, Jackie neither said nor did anything that made Erdely, or Rolling Stone’s editors and fact-checkers, question Jackie’s credibility. Her friends and rape activists on campus strongly supported Jackie’s account. She had spoken of the assault in campus forums. We reached out to both the local branch and the national leadership of the fraternity where Jackie said she was attacked. They responded that they couldn’t confirm or deny her story but had concerns about the evidence.

In the face of new information, there now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie’s account, and we have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced. We were trying to be sensitive to the unfair shame and humiliation many women feel after a sexual assault and now regret the decision to not contact the alleged assaulters to get their account. We are taking this seriously and apologize to anyone who was affected by the story.

Will Dana
Managing Editor

I showed both to a colleague who had been discussing the RS article with his seniors and we had a conversation about how this is an excellent way to demonstrate why fact-checking and corroborating is so important in not just journalism but any factual writing that involves research.  He said that his students had been pretty mature in their discussion of the original article, saying that they acknowledged how horrific the crime committed was and why talking about rape and trying to do something about it was important, but how the original RS article was not as balanced as it should have been.  I’m curious to see what they say on Monday.

This is frustrating because it’s a teachable moment but it’s not a teachable moment I necessarily want.  Our culture has a tendency to be very black and white about stories like this.  If even a small fact is found to be untrue, there are people (whom usually are found in comments sections) who dismiss an entire story outright, calling it “bullshit.”  Rape is a crime that goes largely unreported for a number of reasons, among them being that rape victims are stigmatized as “asking for it” because of the way they were dressed or how they were drinking; furthermore, a number of rape victims know their rapists and are afraid of them as well as the rapists’ friends and are threatened with violence if they go to the police.  Now, you have a nationally reported rape story that has several inaccuracies and the jerks in the room are already prattling on about her not telling the truth.  As a result of all of this, I’m frustrated.  Just so frustrated.

So what can we get out of this?

1. A conversation about journalism.  Setting aside the horror of the crime for a moment, I wonder what Rolling Stone expected.  It’s hard to have a story this graphic and this damning of an institution like UVA published without it being picked up and investigated further by other media outlets, especially the Post, a publication that, at least in the time I’ve been reading it, seems to have it in for UVA for some reason (perhaps because it’s not the University of Maryland).  Furthermore, one would have thought that an article like this would be thoroughly fact-checked.  It goes back to what I tell my students when they do research, especially on controversial topics:  always back up your sources with other sources.  If a fact or story seems like it might be exaggerated, then back it up using another source of information.  So, objectively speaking, both of these articles are worth looking at for how they are written, the mistakes made, and why it’s important to be aware of those mistakes.

2. A conversation about identity and motivation.  So what did motivate “Jackie” to tell the story the way she did?  What exactly did happen that night?  Not to be flip, but doesn’t this sound like it could be the next season of Serial?  Simply saying that her motivation was “attention” when it comes to this story is just as bad as dismissing the entire story by saying “It’s all bullshit.”  Something obviously happened to her, or at least there’s something that caused her to tell the story to Rolling Stone and it can’t just be that she “wanted attention.”  Was she so traumatized that she misconstrued the facts of the evening?  Was she telling the truth but changing some of the facts around because she was protecting someone?  Is she mentally ill and if so should we be having a conversation about mental illness in addition to a conversation about rape?  This story continues to be worth investigating not because “Jackie” should be completely discredited and then smeared, but because there’s a deep discussion about psychology that can take place.

3. A conversation about rape.  No matter the veracity of all the facts in the RS article, we still need to talk about rape.  Don’t think it’s a problem?  Look at the infographic in this Mother Jones article.   My friend Tracy posted this Huffington Post article from February to Facebook last night:  “Why Are So Many Boys Leaving High School Thinking Rape is Funny?”  It sums up one of the roots of the problem and I have to say that if we’re not talking about it in some way, then we’re also the root of the problem.  I know this blog gets all of ten readers and therefore what I have to say won’t resonate with anyone, but a while back when the #gamergate controversy was at its height, I wondered aloud where the #edchat was about #gamergate.  Last week, when the RS article went live, I wondered aloud again why my Thought Leaders weren’t talking about it.  I’m still wondering.  I honestly don’t care about talking about differentiated instruction or about how Innovative Educators need certain resources when they present to crowds and get paid more than I do in a month for an hour’s work.  I care more about whether or not my students will feel safe when going out to a social function, especially ones in college where mom and dad are far away.

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