Our capacity for doubt when it comes to the accounts of victims of sexual violence- and apparently that of the world of journalism- never ceases to amaze me. Two weeks ago, a heartbreaking and deeply disturbing story emerged in Rolling Stone by reporter Sabrina Erdely. It was electrifying and remarkably popular. As of now, both the victim’s account and Erdely’s journalistic practice and ethics are being questioned.
I suppose I should not be surprised.
The primary objections to Erdely’s journalistic integrity rest on three primary foundations: 1) It’s only based on “the word of the alleged victim.” 2) Erdely made no attempt to contact the alleged perpetrators. 3) It’s just too horrible to be true.
First, as for Erdely basing her story solely on the apparently compelling, consistent and credible account of the victim, I’d remind the objectors of a legal maxim, often translated into a jury instruction in criminal cases and applicable in every U.S. jurisdiction I’m aware of: Testimony is evidence in a court of law, and if it is sufficiently compelling to the finders of fact (the jurors), then it may stand alone as the basis for a conviction. So jurors across the United States can base convictions beyond a reasonable doubt on the testimony of a single witness, but a reporter is reckless for accepting the account as the basis of a story?
Second, in terms of Erdely making no attempt to contact perpetrators, this is justified because they were not named. A fraternity was identified, but no individual perpetrators. According to Erdely, she contacted the fraternity and didn’t get very far, but what was she to do anyway? Erdely tells us that the victim, Jackie, for reasons explained, didn’t want the perpetrators she knew of to be confronted. She wanted to tell her story, not generate a mob. This is hardly indefensible; most victims of sexual violence do not report or tell anyone, let alone seek to create a public confrontation. Phi Kappa Psi is suffering scrutiny for sure. But not a single man is, whether affiliated or not. Thus, charges of “you didn’t get the other side of the story” make no sense, unless one or a group of men from the organization was willing to come forth and somehow prove a negative by either 1) accounting for the whereabouts of every member of the fraternity in the fall of 2012 or 2) describing the same encounter as consensual.
Third, in terms of the story being too ghastly, shocking, or indicative of coordinated evil on an otherwise august and civil campus to be true? I can only hope the doubters have never experienced something similar, within or without an environment like Rugby Road. An elucidating piece by Liz Seccuro, herself gang-raped at the same fraternity house 30 years ago, might allow some ugly but necessary light to penetrate the dark ignorance of some suspicious objectors. The LA Times’ Jonah Goldberg, for instance, can’t imagine how a bruised and bloodied woman could leave a darkened, loud college party without being noticed. I’d suggest he has either a limited imagination or limited experience with college parties. Politico’s Rich Lowry speculates that “the shock of [the story] led many people to recoil in horror upon the article’s release and ask, “How could this have happened at such a respectable school?” Actually, Mr. Lowry, there are legions of women (and some men) who know exactly how it could happen.
Both wonder how Jackie’s friends could have been so equivocal about reporting, and how the university could be so tepid about taking the matter to the police. Again, I can only say they have severely limited experience with the reality of sexual violence as it usually plays out in college life, and even less insight into how such violence is normally responded to. A fair debate continues about the role colleges should play in adjudicating sexual assault. But what must be understood is that the desires of victims, particularly given the gross limitations of the criminal justice system, drive the seemingly laissez-faire reactions of college administrators when rape comes to their attention. The idea is to empower, not dictate.
Doubting Jackie’s account is anyone’s prerogative. Doubts about Erdley’s reporting of it should stand on firmer ground.