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Rolling Stone didn't just fail readers — it failed Jackie, too

Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

The details of the infamous gang rape at UVA, reported in Rolling Stone last month, are now in doubt. But here's what isn't. The magazine might have thought it was protecting Jackie, whose story about a traumatic experience is at the heart of the article. Instead, by not pushing for more details, they did her a terrible disservice.

They let the force of a 9,000-word story on a national problem rest entirely on the memories of a traumatized college student.

The reporter, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, seems to have thought she was respecting Jackie's boundaries by not interviewing her alleged rapists. She has said that Jackie asked her not to reach out to the supposed assailant, and Erdely says she complied. According to the Washington Post, she never even knew his full name.

That might have been what Jackie was comfortable with when she was interviewed. But what it did was put an intolerable burden on her shoulders: the entire story now depended on her word.

Checking her story wouldn't have been disrespectful. It would have been responsible.

I understand why nobody wanted push Jackie too hard. If someone tells you their story about being sexually assaulted, you should believe them unless you have a damn good reason not to. That doesn't make you overly credulous. It makes you a decent human being. And it's in line with what the most rigorous studies say about false reports of rape — that they are relatively rare.

But there's a reason there's this saying in journalism: if your mother says she loves you, check it out. Trust, but verify. No exceptions.

Journalism sometimes means being a horrible person

Jackie's story was compelling, but little-documented. Unlike other well-publicized stories of campus rape, she had never filed a formal complaint with her college or with the police. There was no paper trail. And she didn't volunteer for the media spotlight; Erdely found her through a survivor's support group.

None of those things mean Jackie is lying. But it makes it all the more important to ask for proof. If you are going to expose a traumatized 20-year-old to the judgment of the entire world with a story that many people don't want to believe is true, you owe it to everyone — to your readers, but especially to her — to make sure it is unimpeachable. It's not just damage control for your publication or your personal reputation. It's to protect the person who trusted you.

And so you talk to everyone. You examine every possible discrepancy and check it out. Because however much Rolling Stone is suffering from this disaster, they're deflecting the blame by saying Jackie was untrustworthy.

I don't know what happened between Jackie and Erdely. But Jackie told the Washington Post that after the first interview, she wanted out of the story — she was traumatized and decided she hated the idea of everyone reading about the worst night of her life. She said Erdely told her she couldn't back out. If true, that's a horrifying breach of trust between reporter and subject.

Journalists have to be honest with sources

I understand why Erdely approached Jackie this way. Jackie had a story that stands out even in the horrors of other narratives of campus rape. She was clearly traumatized, and Erdely wanted to include her compelling story.

If a journalist were completely honest with a source about what it means to be interviewed for this sort of story, it would go something like this: you are going to tell me about the worst day of your life, because you think there is value in sharing that story with the rest of the world. You need to trust me, but you need to know I am not your friend. I will seem as sympathetic as I can be, but I will also note the exact moment you start crying so I can write about it. I will ask questions that might make you uncomfortable. I will call other people and tell them what you're saying about them. I will open you up to the judgment of the entire world. And then I will walk away.

And if you aren't ready to deal with that, you shouldn't talk to me.

I don't know if anyone would consent to that. And I don't know if I could really shoot myself in the foot with that much honesty. No decent human wants to appear to doubt the word of a rape victim.

But if you don't do that work in private, you make it that much easier for the rest of the world to do it in public. That's what Rolling Stone — and Jackie — are about to learn.

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