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Natalie Delgadillo: Rethinking approach to sexual assault stories after Rolling Stone case

By Natalie Delgadillo

April 8, 2015 8:26 a.m.

Writing about trauma is a formidable task.

As journalists, our professional practice is based in skepticism; reporters are never supposed to take anyone’s word for anything and have to verify facts to the point of exhaustion. Even for a normal story – one that isn’t emotionally triggering or fraught with a person’s traumatic experience – this insistence on verification sometimes rubs sources the wrong way.

In cases of sexual violence, journalists risk re-traumatizing their sources, triggering the powerful shame that oftentimes accompanies sexual assault and stripping them of agency over their own stories. Asking questions and going around a source to verify facts is sometimes necessary to make sure the story checks out. But it can also feel impossible to suggest to a survivor of sexual assault that his or her word is not enough proof to verify what happened.

On Sunday, the Columbia Journalism Review published a report that exposed gaping holes in the editing and reporting process for a Rolling Stone story published last November called “A Rape on Campus.” The article, which I’m sure we’ve all read by now, told the horrific story of a University of Virginia junior known as Jackie, who said she was brutally gang-raped by seven members of a fraternity at a date party.

Hardly a week passed before other news outlets began raising serious doubts about the veracity of Jackie’s account, and Rolling Stone has now officially retracted the story.

The resurfacing of the Rolling Stone story after the Columbia report has raised questions for me, most of which I’m not entirely sure I know how to answer.

How do journalists sensitively, accurately and responsibly report on cases of sexual assault? What questions are appropriate to ask, not just of the survivor, but of friends, family or witnesses? In the Rolling Stone case, one of the biggest flaws in writer Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s reporting process was that she did not reach out either to the accused assailants in Jackie’s story or to the three friends who Jackie named as dissuading her from reporting her assault.

That is terrible journalistic practice. By not verifying key facts in the story, Erdely and Rolling Stone opened Jackie up to unfair criticism and hurt other women who might wish to come forward and report. But in some way, I also understand the difficulty in reaching out to an accused assailant against your source’s wishes.

This is not to excuse Erdely or the magazine from anything. What happened is unequivocally their burden to bear. I’m only raising questions about why the reporter did not pursue standard avenues of verification; was she afraid that she would burn her source? That she would re-traumatize Jackie? That she would lose out on a major story?

I’m raising questions about whether journalists need to start thinking differently about the way they cover sexual violence.

I’ve begun to believe that journalists have to concede that some stories simply should not be told.

There should be a mutual understanding between a reporter and his or her source that all facts will have to be verified by outside parties and that it’s the reporter’s duty to reach out to everyone involved in the case, including the accused. The survivor should be clear on the reporter’s respect for her, for her privacy and for her autonomy, but understand what the reporter’s job entails in this circumstance.

And if any survivor of sexual assault is unprepared to go through that kind of reporting process, both the survivor and the reporter – who could well be missing out on a compelling story – should be prepared to walk away.

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