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The lesson of Rolling Stone and UVA: protecting victims means checking their stories

Rolling Stone's high-profile story about sexual assault on campus appears to be falling apart in the wake of serious questions raised about a horrifying alleged gang-rape used as its central example.

It is a depressing certainty that this story will be used for years to come as a defense by those who do not want to believe rape victims' allegations. But that is the wrong lesson to draw. Rather, this story should be a reminder of how difficult it is to accurately report on traumatic events — and the heightened ethical responsibilities that fall on journalists who do so.

"A Rape On Campus" began with a narrative told by a young woman named only as "Jackie" about a gang rape that she claimed to have experienced at a fraternity party. Rolling Stone issued an apology for the story today: "There now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie's account, and we have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced."

Rolling Stone's statement places the blame on Jackie, accusing her of being unworthy of trust. But the fact is that the magazine failed to report this story in a careful and ethical way. The reporter, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, did not fully check the details of Jackie's story before publishing them — or contact the alleged perpetrators involved. Today, the Washington Post reported that the fraternity where Jackie said the attack took place did not host a party on the night Jackie said she was raped, and that no member of the house fits Jackie's description of her assailant.

Erdely claims that she was trying to protect Jackie, who feared that she might suffer retribution if Rolling Stone contacted her attackers. But failing to ensure that the story was accurate before exposing it to public scrutiny didn't protect Jackie. It left her vulnerable.

I know that from first-hand experience. I was a lawyer before becoming a journalist, and I worked with refugees and other trauma victims. That taught me that it is incredibly difficult for traumatized people to tell an accurate story, even if they are trying to do so. There are many reasons for this. In severe cases, post-traumatic stress disorder can cause memory loss, or make the true details of stories too painful to recount. One client of mine would shut down physically when asked to recount certain events, falling into a narcoleptic sleep mid-sentence. Another time, a woman I was interviewing about her sexual assault suffered a mental break and regressed to childhood, begging me to bring her to her long-dead mother.

Even in less severe cases, people's stories often contained errors or omissions. Dates would be wrong. Sometimes people would mistakenly name the wrong group as being responsible for persecuting them. Clients would focus on some facts and leave out others. All of that could easily have been reason to doubt the entire story, but when I checked the fundamental facts involved against other evidence — medical records, news stories, sometimes even the accounts of the perpetrators themselves — they would turn out to be true.

The problem, I came to realize, was not that people were making up stories, but that the details that seemed important to me were not what mattered to them.

For instance, when I asked one young woman how she could be unsure which armed group was responsible for the attack that had forced her and her family to flee their home, she told me, "When someone comes to your house to kill you, you don't ask them for their ID card." And there are some details that are simply difficult for anyone to notice and remember, such as the names of streets in a town with which a person is unfamiliar, the dates of events far in the past, or the faces of strangers they had never met before the trauma in question.

That meant that I had a responsibility to protect the people I interviewed by checking the details of their stories before exposing them to the scrutiny of the public or an immigration court. Presenting their stories without first doing that kind of due diligence would not have been a way to protect them from harm. Rather, it would have left them with a record that undermined their credibility, and no means to recover from it.

I have no idea how much, if any, of Jackie's story is true. I didn't speak to her. It is of course possible that it is all a lie, or that some parts of it are true but she intentionally changed some details for reasons of her own. If so, then she bears responsibility for that decision. But it also seems like she could be in a similar situation as the people I worked with in the past. According to the Washington Post, she has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, which can affect memory and make it more difficult to retell a story accurately. This could explain the apparent errors in the Rolling Stone story: the date of the attack, the name of the fraternity.

Before I had experience working with trauma victims, I would have scoffed at the idea that anyone could make that kind of mistake. But now I can easily believe it. By failing to check Jackie's story, Rolling Stone and Erdely weren't protecting her. They were leaving her vulnerable. That was wrong and irresponsible, not just toward the the alleged perpetrators, but toward their readers, and toward Jackie herself.

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