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How The 'Rolling Stone' Story Could Hurt Future Victims


It was a brutal story, a rallying point for activists fighting sexual assault on college campuses. Rolling Stone told the story of a woman called Jackie, who says she was savagely beaten and gang-raped at a frat party at the University of Virginia. But the reporter never contacted the alleged attackers. And now Rolling Stone has apologized for the story, saying its trust in Jackie was misplaced. For her part, Jackie has told the Washington Post that she stands by her version of events. For reaction on this, we're joined by Marybeth Seitz-Brown. She's with the group Students Active for Ending Rape, or SAFER. Marybeth, thanks for joining us.

MARYBETH SEITZ-BROWN: Thanks for having me.

RATH: So when this story first appeared in Rolling Stone, what was your reaction?

SEITZ-BROWN: My reaction was that, you know, this is yet another example of how college campuses continue to systematically sweep sexual violence under the rug until it becomes a major PR issue for them. And I think this story, in particular, is very sensationalized. But there are thousands of other stories that show the same patterns, which is that there is both institutional and community betrayal of survivors, which causes them to be further traumatized and prevents them from getting the support and resources that they need for healing and justice.

RATH: And, obviously, this story got a ton of attention worldwide. How did you react when you heard that Rolling Stone was backing off from Jackie's story?

SEITZ-BROWN: I was very disappointed. Rolling Stone clearly did not perform their own due diligence while reporting this story. And rather than apologizing for their own editorial mistakes, they blamed a rape survivor who is still recovering from excruciating trauma and saying that they should not have trusted her. Discrepancies in this story does not necessarily mean that the allegation is false or that the survivor is not trustworthy. It is incredibly common for survivors of any kind of trauma, not just sexual trauma, to remember some details extremely vividly, while maybe some other memories may be blurry. And ultimately, if you're not able to adhere to journalistic standards while you're reporting a story without re-traumatizing or re-victimizing a survivor, then you probably shouldn't publish that story, especially if the survivor isn't comfortable with it being printed for fear of retaliation.

RATH: You know, there's a lot of reporting in the Rolling Stone piece that had nothing to do with Jackie's account - about other victims who have come forward and resistance on campus to reporting and accountability. Do you worry that all gets lost now in the controversy over Jackie's story?

SEITZ-BROWN: I hope it doesn't, and I think the way that we react to this story is going to be as important as the story itself. For me, I think the real learning that's come out of this statement and this new development is that journalists need to be trained in how to conduct trauma-informed investigations. Many survivors are completely ignored by their colleges until they take their stories to the press, so the press really does play a real role. And if Rolling Stone and others want to report about these issues then they need to understand that PTSD, anxiety, depression - these can all affect survivors, and they can affect memory surrounding the incident. So that makes it very difficult to present a perfectly consistent, airtight narrative to a journalist.

RATH: Do you think that what's happened with this Rolling Stone story has been a setback for people and groups trying to bring attention to campus sexual assault?

SEITZ-BROWN: I don't necessarily think it has to be a setback. I think this can be a moment of education and to help people understand - what does it actually feel like to have experienced sexual violence? And what does it mean, in the aftermath, about your ability to recall those memories, your ability to share that experience with, usually, a complete stranger or an audience of complete strangers? So I think if we seize this moment and say - let's learn about the effects of sexual trauma on those who have experienced it, then I think that can be a place to actually, you know, really build some nuance into this movement and help people empathize with survivors, which, at the end of the day, is what we're asking for.

RATH: Marybeth Seitz-Brown is with the group SAFER. That's Students Active for Ending Rape. Marybeth, thanks very much.

SEITZ-BROWN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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