Jackie did nothing wrong.
If anything, she did everything in her power to tell her story as best as she could, and if there’s anything to gain from Rolling Stone’s botched story on “A Rape on Campus,” it’s realizing that sexual assault coverage by journalists and news organizations needs to be improved.
The journalistic mistakes made by the reporters and editors of Rolling Stone are, though horrendous, understandable from the standpoint of sympathy. No reporter wants to ‘correct’ the survivor of assault, because what authority do they have over someone else’s personal tragedy? No journalist wants to ‘confirm’ what happened, because what right do they even have to inquire?
How do you act like a sympathetic human being and a thorough journalist at the same time?
This is the mentality that caused Rolling Stone to fail in its coverage, and it is what makes sexual assault so difficult for reporters to cover.
In response to Rolling Stone’s story, Salamishah Tillet of The Nation wrote “Why It’s So Hard to Write About Rape.”
Tillet writes that reporters “have the conflicting responsibilities of ensuring they don’t convict the perpetrator in the press or further traumatize the victim. Does the Rolling Stone controversy show that it’s impossible to be a good journalist and be sensitive to rape victims?”
Tillet goes on to say no, it is not impossible.
In an op-ed published in the Columbia Spectator by Columbia College junior Daniel Garisto, questions are raised about the morality and ethicality of sexual assault coverage and standard journalistic practices. The piece, in response to the assault of Columbia University’s Emma Sulkowicz and entitled “Better media coverage of sexual assault for survivors,” talks about the delicate balance between being supportive and respectful of sexual assault survivors while also taking the necessary journalistic paths for thorough coverage.
“Is it possible for the media to be true to a mission of supporting individual survivors and still have critical coverage?” Garisto writes.
According to the op-ed, this is not only possible, but absolutely necessary.
As the discussion about sexual assault increases and improves all over the country, journalistic coverage of this issue needs to do the same.
In 2011, The Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma published a tip sheet for “Reporting on Sexual Violence.” The piece stresses that reporters understand the psychological trauma and impact of sexual assault. It goes over the importance of language (for instance, using words such as “survivor” rather than “victim”) and respect (understanding that survivors have the right to not answer questions or go into detail if they don’t want to).
It stresses the fact that uncorroborated statements, unnamed subjects and misremembered details result from the unimaginable psychological trauma of sexual assault. They do not indicate false reportings or lies.
In 2013, The Poynter Institute published a similar guide entitled “How journalists can provide fair coverage when reporting on rape charge in Cleveland case.” Though the guide was written in response to the Cleveland kidnappings of Amanda Berry, Michelle Knight and Gina DeJesus, its message and suggestions ring true today.
Use clear language, and don’t turn survivors into characters. Their experiences are real, and shouldn’t be treated as drama. Understand that “dwelling on gratuitous or salacious details about sexual assaults” can be re-victimizing and again, dramatizing a real event that happened.
These guidelines are decent. They provide journalists with the basic surface-level information needed to cover a topic as shaky as sexual assault. However, these guidelines still don’t go far enough in describing how reporters should balance sensitivity and objectivity.
Rolling Stone was sensitive in their coverage (at least, until they disgustingly reported that they “lost faith” in Jackie), but they weren’t objective in their methodology of reporting.
Recently, Rolling Stone took down “A Rape on Campus,” and published a critique of the story by the Columbia Journalism Review. The critique picks apart every “reporting path” the writer should have taken to check and confirm Jackie’s story. From finding and interviewing Jackie’s friends to researching the campus events (specifically, the fraternity party) that happened on the night of Jackie’s assault, the Columbia Journalism Review makes clear that there were countless oversights on the part of Rolling Stone that would have prevented their journalistic failures.
They should have checked out some of the details of Jackie’s story, and they should have sought out more sources to interview.
Investigating for confirmable truth doesn’t discredit Jackie’s experiences, and finding gaps in knowledge or details doesn’t mean Jackie is lying. Fact checking and investigating are the basic jobs of journalists, and failing to do these basic jobs results in failing the subjects of stories (i.e. Jackie) and the readers of the publication.
To many, this mentality might seem robotic and lacking in sympathy, especially since the topic of sexual assault is sensitive. It is triggering. It is delicate.
But this topic is so important, and it needs to be covered right.