Matt Taibbi, the Rolling Stone reporter and author, did a sit-down interview last Wednesday that focused mostly on his latest report for the magazine about our corrupt policing systems, racism, and state violence. Near the end, HuffPost Live host Alyona Minkovski took about three minutes to ask Taibbi about the biggest Rolling Stone story in the last year or so: the since-retracted November 2014 investigative feature about sexual assault at a University of Virginia (UVA) fraternity. In early April, the Columbia Journalism Review published a lengthy report about what went wrong in the feature’s reporting and fact-checking. Finally, in May, a UVA dean featured in the piece sued both the magazine and the journalist who wrote the story, Sabrina Rose Erdely, for defamation. Through all of this, Rolling Stone and Erdely have mainly said what they have about what happened via statements.
During the interview, Taibbi expressed the requisite regret about his employer’s embarrassment. When Minkovski asked him if he thought that rape victims had been damage by the fallout, Taibbi responded, “Absolutely. Because what's going to happen going forward is now anyone who tries to do a story about this is going to look at what happened with the Rolling Stone UVA story and that’s unfortunate. I know people at the magazine feel terrible about that most of all. Hopefully, it won’t set things back too far.”
Then Taibbi, without being asked, offered some advice on how to report on sexual assault. “One way around that, you know, would be for people to cover cases that have already been adjudicated... so that the reporters don't have to go out on a limb to say that this or that happened. They can rely on something that happened, that's already been proven in court,” he said.
That was a weird thing to hear from a reporter known for exposing how terrible the criminal justice system can be. The failures of the Rolling Stone piece are not about a lack of verifiable evidence. In fact, I would argue that for the public, there is almost no bulletproof sexual assault case. Given that the vast majority of sexual assault cases are not “cases that have already been adjudicated,” reserving our reporting for those that have been decided in court would be a grave mistake.
As the UVA story was falling apart in late November and early December, I was working on a 6,000-word article for Vice Sports about a campus sexual assault. It centered on a single survivor. While the woman in my story had never reported to the police, my report differed from the Rolling Stone feature because the university had done a disciplinary hearing and I had access to those documents. I was not relying solely on the story of a survivor, but it was her account that did the heavy lifting. Beyond that, I have spoken to multiple survivors of sexual assault, on campus and otherwise, who want nothing more than to tell their stories to a journalist who will listen with compassion. I have listened to women who struggle through post-traumatic stress disorder to tell their stories.
I have also written about cases that will never be adjudicated, have profiled cases where they have gone all the way through the courts, and everything in between.
One thing I have learned is that most survivors don’t report their assaults to police, including only 20% of campus sexual assaults, according to a Department of Justice report published last December:
“…about one in 10 said they don’t think what happened to them is important enough to bring to the attention of police. Other reasons they didn’t pursue charges include the views that it is a personal matter or that they don’t think authorities would or could help. One in five said they fear reprisal.”
ProPublica and the New Orleans Advocate reported earlier this year that only about one in three survivors report sexual assaults when they occur. Of those reports, Department of Justice statistics show, less than 40 percent result in an arrest, a far lower figure than for other major crimes such as murder or aggravated assault.” Regarding the UVA case in particular, the school had problems before Erdely ever arrived on campus to report on them. MSNBC reporter Irin Carmon tweeted back in early December:
The reason I dislike Taibbi’s advice is not only because adjudicated cases constitute a minority of the cases. It’s because journalists need to embrace that the very way we practice our craft makes us suspicious to victims. Survivors don’t think people will believe them. There’s a reason for this. As a society, when we discuss sexual assault cases, the conversation centers not on who did it or how, but rather if a crime even happened. That particular line of questioning, in turn, creates doubt about the credibility of the person who has reported the violence. Instead of focusing on the assault itself, the discussion is primarily about whether the victim is lying.
When Taibbi said journalists should use adjudicated cases because doing so means they “don't have to go out on a limb” and “can rely on something that happened, that's already been proven in court,” he’s reifying this central cultural problem with how we think about sexual assault: The implicit disbelief in survivors’ accounts. Saying that court documents are somehow more verifiable or credible than non-adjudicated cases tells survivors that their stories told by them outside of the legal apparatus are not as verifiable or credible; they hear this all the time.
Yes, journalists should use adjudicated cases if they are available. But that should not be our go-to answer for how to not have a repeat of the fact-checking failure we saw at Rolling Stone. The CJR report did not suggest that reporting on sexual assault cases that have no official, state-created documentation should stop. Instead, it says that “it would be unfortunate” if the outcome of the Rolling Stone failure was that journalists are deterred “from taking on high-risk investigations of rape” where “the facts may be underdeveloped.”
The CJR offered their own advice. The report cites the Center for Public Integrity’s Kristen Lombardi, who has worked with survivors to tell their stories. Lombardi, according to CJR “prefaced her interviews by assuring the women that she believed in them but that it was in their best interest to make sure there were no questions about the veracity of their accounts.” Most importantly, Lombardi said, “If a woman was not ready for such a process, [I] was prepared to walk away.”
The nightmare of what happened with the UVA story was that a woman whose story should never have been told was handed over on a platter to a public that feasts on picking apart sexual assault survivor’s stories. The nightmare is that other victims of sexual violence watched all of that happen. The fear is not that journalists will shy away from these stories but that survivors will now be even more reluctant to trust their stories to the journalists who want to do this work.
In August of last year, Feministing’s Maya Dusenbery brilliantly touched on the one of the main difficulties of reporting on sexual assault, one that Lombardi suggests but is not explicit about in her advice to walk away if necessary: That the messiness and pervasiveness of sexual violence in our society might make revealing it through the rigors and regulations of journalism impossible in some cases. As journalists, we have to be willing to try, but also willing to abandon that effort for the sake and safety of the subject.
Perhaps, as Dusenbery argues, there is nothing we can do about the way our fact-checking continues the cultural questioning of victims. I often contemplate this and worry about it as I consider my work. Taibbi’s advice, however, is still an overreaction. What we can and must do is journalism that doesn’t start from a place that participates in the endless questioning of a survivor’s credibility, that doesn’t narrow our scope so drastically that we, too, stop seeing all the stories and that doesn’t say to victims that only certain stories count as verifiable, believable, and real.