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How gullible journalists do harm to rape victims

A new report from The Washington Post, based on recently released court documents, reveals just how credulous the writer of the now-discredited Rolling Stone rape article had to be. Short answer: quite.

Looking into the notes of the writer, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, the Post reporter finds that she pressed forward with the UVA story even though:

  • The protagonist, Jackie, refused to give her the names of any corroborating witnesses, or the name of the attacker to contact for comment.

  • Hours of being raped atop broken glass had apparently left no scars (the writer asked to see them).

  • Jackie herself brought up a “Law and Order: SVU” episode that strongly resembled her story.

  •  Others warned the writer that Jackie’s story had changed over time.  And the story itself contained numerous red flags.

It’s hard to fathom how Erdely went along with all this (not to get into why editors and Rolling Stone’s lawyer signed off on the article).

Perhaps because she committed a journalistic sin known as “writing the lede on the way to the ballpark.”

She was out for a story about institutional indifference to an epidemic of campus rape, and the best way to tell that story is to find a horrifying incident that obviously should’ve been prosecuted to a slam-dunk conviction, but was instead hushed up.

Unfortunately, when you start out committed to a narrative, you tend to be looking for reasons to believe, instead of reasons to doubt.

Journalists are not the only ones who want to believe. There were powerful voices saying rape was a special sort of crime, one that must be treated very differently from other sorts of crimes. Rape is, unfortunately, a difficult crime to prosecute: There are generally only two witnesses, sometimes one or both of whom are often impaired by intoxicants, and even if you think that the rate of false accusations is “only” 8 percent . . . well, an 8 percent chance that any given rape accusation is false gets you at least a big start toward “reasonable doubt.”

This enrages a lot of activists, as well it should; every rape left unprosecuted is a tragic injustice. But activists pushed the notion that the answer was to use weaker standards of evidence, to refrain from questioning victims’ stories, to err on the side of believing accusers rather than giving the accused the benefit of the doubt. They weren’t very successful in the criminal justice system, but they were successful in campus judiciary proceedings — and perhaps they also succeeded in getting journalists like Erdely to change the standards they used to evaluate rape accusations.

The most surprising thing about the UVA case was not that a single reporter got rooked, but that Erdely’s editors let the story go ahead, and a Columbia Journalism School professor defended them for publishing the story.

I understand the humanitarian impulse here. Being raped is incredibly traumatic; being treated with suspicion afterward adds insult to terrible injury.

But this is not, as is often implied, a problem unique to rape cases. If your spouse is murdered, or simply dies under suspicious circumstances, it’s quite likely soon afterward you’ll find yourself subjected to interviews with police who think you were involved.

You’ve just lost the person most important to you in the world, and now you’re also being tacitly accused of having committed a crime. It’s horrible. Police don’t like having to make someone who is grieving sit through hours of interviews. But investigations are the only tool they have; they don’t know any other way to keep bad people from murdering their spouses.

And in the long run, the “I believe women” standard is not only bad for people who are accused, but also bad for rape victims. The Jackie debacle was an enormous setback for campus rape activists. I don’t blame the activists for having listened to Jackie without interrogating her claims too closely. But that’s why the journalists who tell their stories are supposed to vet them carefully.

Rape is a terrible crime. But beating someone severely is also a terrible crime. Murder is a terrible crime.

The horror of the crime doesn’t absolve any of us from the need to be careful about the accusations we level, even if taking that care means we sometimes do further psychic injury to victims.

In a better world, we wouldn’t have to choose between vigorous investigation and generosity toward victims. But laws and ethical standards are made to make the best of this flawed world we have.

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