If you pay attention to the subject of campus rape and college student sexual assaults, you couldn’t have missed the mainstream media’s reporting of Rolling Stone Magazine’s very public retraction of a controversial story it published last November 2014, titled “A Rape on Campus.”
The story described a horrific gang rape of a female student at the University of Virginia identified only as “Jackie”, reportedly by seven different men at a campus fraternity house. The story understandably unleashed a renewed debate about college campus sexual assaults; specifically, about the actual extent of campus sexual assaults in the U.S., and whether colleges and universities are aggressive enough on this issue. It has also been alleged by more than one women’s advocacy group that many colleges and universities intentionally hide or under-report campus sexual assaults. Reading the published story, one is left with the impression that the University of Virginia was a “poster boy,” if you will, for college officials’ indifference to the subject of student rape. The hue and cry that resulted, was predictable: Marches and protests on several college campuses; ‘fist pumping protests’ by female students’ unions; and women’s advocacy groups fanning the flames at each and every step along the way, decrying ‘male-led indifference’ at the top of colleges and universities across the country.
Turns out there was just one minor problem with the story: It was completely false. Worse, neither the Rolling Stone reporter who wrote the story, nor any of her editors at the magazine, caught multiple factual errors and inconsistencies before publishing the story. Gradually after the story’s publication last November, fact-checking exposed several inconsistencies in the alleged victim’s story. The Charlottesville, Virginia Police Department determined it had found no evidence to support the claims of the alleged victim. Eventually, Rolling Stone magazine requested that the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism conduct an independent, external review of the story. Last week, Columbia University released its conclusions that the manner in which Rolling Stone vetted, reported, edited the story was “a story of journalistic failure that was avoidable. [The failure] encompassed reporting, editing, editorial supervision and fact-checking,” which the venerable journalism school reported on its website. Rolling Stone’s Managing Editor Will Dana issued a formal apology on the magazine’s website, and the female reporter who wrote the story also apologized in a written statement.
Yet, neither the reporter, her editor, nor anyone else at Rolling Stone who was involved with the story, has either been terminated, or even disciplined, in any manner that I am presently aware of. As a Boston campus sex offense lawyer, I find this disturbing. But before I practiced law, I was a Media Relations Spokesperson and editor of two news publications where I held public affairs management positions. So, I know a few things about news reporting, writing, and editing that the average Massachusetts sex crimes attorney doesn’t. And for Rolling Stone to allow its employees involved in this story to essentially receive no consequences whatsoever in this matter, is in my view as a Massachusetts college campus sex offense lawyer, journalistically irresponsible.
Accusing someone of raping another person is an extremely serious accusation. It can and does destroy the accused’s life: Even if the accused is ultimately acquitted, he (or she – yes, that can happen, too) will always be remembered for being “charged with rape.” A Massachusetts rape accusation is in effect, an electronic Scarlet Letter. There are always two sides to every Massachusetts rape allegation – and this needs to be remembered.
Hopefully, this incident with Rolling Stone Magazine will answer the question many people ask me when they learn I’m a Massachusetts sex offense attorney, “How can you defend someone accused of rape?” The answer: “Because the person accused may be innocent.”