What Have We Learned from the UVA Rape Story? Bad Campus Policies Are Here to Stay

We will get fooled again.


Public Domain

Media Matters ran an interesting piece that asked the editors at elite journalism outlets whether they changed any of their procedures in the wake of Rolling Stone's disastrous University of Virginia rape story. The answer, for the most part, is no.

Here were a few representative responses:

"I don't think that story holds any larger lessons about rape coverage, or whether one should believe alleged assault victims," New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet told Media Matters via email. "It was a poorly-done story … It doesn't make me any more or less likely to believe a source. We always verify, get the other side, and report the heck out of a story, no matter the subject."

For Martin Baron, editor of The Washington Post, the same is true: "Nothing has changed in our coverage. We always try to be both sensitive and careful, and to report such stories thoroughly."

Robert Rosenthal, executive director of the Center for Investigative Reporting, said via email, "This is very sensitive and difficult reporting and the Rolling Stone incident did not teach us anything except to rely on the standards and practices CIR has maintained for 37 years when it comes to verification for all of our work. And to do everything we can to make sure we are fair in our conclusions and that they are based on facts and sources who are named, not anonymous."

There is nothing particularly wrong with these answers. Newspapers and magazines already claim to vigorously edit and fact-check their stories. Rolling Stone compromised its procedures, but that doesn't mean the procedures themselves are inadequate. (It does mean that Rolling Stone engaged in unfathomable levels of recklessness for which the chief perpetrators have scarcely even apologized—let alone been disciplined—but that's another matter).

And yet I fully expect reporters and media commenters to fall for another Jackie. Indeed, they already have.

The Hunting Ground—a documentary about the campus rape crisis that was produced by activists, but initially drew favorable press from mainstream-ish outlets like The Huffington Post—came out after Jackie's lies were fully exposed. The film highlights several alleged assaults on campuses and was hailed as an expose of sorts, reinforcing the notion that colleges are brimming with abusive sociopaths.

Weeks after The Hunting Ground's debut, Slate's Emily Yoffe exposed one of its central stories—the alleged rape of Kamilah Willingham—as false. The long version is here. The short version is this: Nothing remotely criminal happened to Willingham. The victim was the male student she accused, whose entire life was put on hold because of her claims.

This cycle—outrageous rape story, heaps of praise and righteous indignation, thorough debunking—has continued in the wake of UVA, and existed long before it (remember Duke lacrosse?). Getting duped by fabulists is a recurring motif of the campus violence beat.

But why is that the case? Toward the end of the Media Matters article, National Organization for Women President Terry O'Neill provides an answer, of sorts:

"To me, the worst aspect of the Rolling Stone article was the fact that the magazine and the author insisted on telling the most salacious story they could find, the most outrageous, the most sensationalistic story of rape they could find," said Terry O'Neill, president of the National Organization for Women. "They worked directly with the head of the student group that advocates around sexual assaults, but they didn't [use many of those stories] and my understanding is that the less sensationalist stories were abundant. I think that right there tells you what's wrong with coverage of sexual assault in the United States today."

A media racing to break the most incredible, gut-wrenching, salt-the-earth story is a media that's going to fall for a Jackie every single time—particularly when so many people are predisposed to think that horrific, ritualistic campus violence is widespread (1 in 5! 1 in 5!).

The truth is harder to reduce into a shocking headline and simple theme. When today's teenagers arrive at college, they are liberated from increasingly overbearing parental authority for perhaps the first time in their lives. The evidence suggests that they are drinking more recklessly than they were before the imposition of the federal drinking age in 1985, chugging more alcohol in shorter periods of times and in sketchier environments. And then they are having sex.

Regrettable things can happen to teenagers under these conditions. They will consent to things they otherwise wouldn't. They will do things they don't remember later. They will misinterpret each other's social cues. Their feelings about their decisions will change as their heads clear.

This is not to say that all instances of campus sexual assault are actually just alcohol-induced confusion, but rather, that genuine confusion is often going to be a significant component of these disputes. This gives the media the difficult task of remaining objective and working extra hard to fairly investigate both sides. It's not an easy job, and it cuts against the desire to publish incendiary stories.

Think of the Emma Sulkowicz story. The most unbiased, objective analysis of the Sulkowicz-Nungesser dispute is that it's impossible to say for sure who's lying—though we should give weight to the fact that Nungesser was cleared, presented circumstantial evidence in his favor, and appears to be the target of a small social conspiracy. But nobody wants a complicated campus rape story with unclear answers. Indeed, I've been criticized by both pro-Sulkowicz and pro-Nungesser camps for failing to deliver a scathing condemnation of one or the other.

The media's penchant for campus sex drama—and eschewing of complicated narratives—has been eagerly embraced by policymakers who prefer simple, do-something solutions: it gives them an excuse to interfere. That's why legislatures are trying to redefine consent to make rape more prevalent—if you don't have explicit permission, at each step down the road toward copulation, it's rape—while vigorously policing sexual harassment on an ever-broadening, subjective basis.

The Title IX inquisition, and the neo-Victorian push to make most campus sexual activity borderline illegal, are partly the result of the media's shock-and-awe storytelling when it comes to campus rape. And for the meantime, we will be stuck with these policies, no matter how many times the Jackies of the world are debunked.

Read my initial report on the UVA rape story—which recently won a Southern California Journalism Award—here.`