In November of 2014, Rolling Stone magazine published a scathing expose of a campus rape University of Virginia. “Jackie,” a freshman at the time, had been brutally gang raped, by seven members of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house during a party in September of 2012. She remembered that the member who orchestrated her assault was a lifeguard. It was later found that no social event had been hosted that night, and the fraternity had no lifeguard members.
The magazine official retracted the story in December, after finding may of the facts of the story to be false. Three Phi Kappa Psi members are now suing Rolling Stone for defamation. The full recapitulation can be read here.
As an aspiring journalist, this story makes me incredibly frustrated. Stories like this are stories that have potential to move policies through government channels and pressure officials to make decisions. Just in the past two months we saw one such example of journalism. In the middle east, record numbers of middle eastern refugees and immigrants are flooding into Europe by any means necessary. Boat is a popular option. However, the shoddy overloaded boats often capsize and the people in them drown. One of these victims was a three year old Syrian boy, his body washed up on a beach in Greece. The photos (which some consider to be graphic) of this helped to move the European Union to make decisions on how to handle the wave of people approaching. In Nevada, the statue of limitations on rape cases has been extended to the rape overwhelming amount of allegations made against Bill Cosby. The Rolling Stone story could have had this same effect. Campuses across the country would have been provoked to take a serious look at their policies regarding student safety (particularly anti-rape precautions), and be sure they are at their most effective. Rolling Stone chose a dramatic example of rape at college, rather than selecting a solid and credible story in their effort to make an impact. A story with evidence and facts that line up, an event that actually happened to someone, would have initiated far more social change than a grandiose lie.
While there are no high profile rape cases at UI, the story of Katy Benoit and her death fall into the pattern of poorly handled, sexually charged cases. Benoit was a psychology graduate student in 2011, who was in a sexual relationship with an associate professor of psychology, Ernesto Bustamante. Bustamante engaged in several relationships with students and was on medication for a variety of psychological issues. Benoit received multiple threats of gun violence after breaking things off with Bustamante. On August 23, 2011, Benoit was shot outside her apartment while she smoked. Bustamante was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in a hotel room the next day. Several student evaluations listed concerns about Bustamante’s comments on violence and sex in the classroom. Moscow Police Department, as well as the University, were fully aware of the threats that had been made against Benoit. Her death could have been avoided.
Since then, the university has made great strides. There is a University Title IX investigator and coordinator, and the Green Dot program, all coming out of the Office of Violence Prevention. Campus Safety Week, centered around the anniversary of Benoit’s death. The Green Dot program aims to make safety a community effort, and help empower bystanders to help in a time of need. The week features a Safety Walk, a Take Back the Night rally, and the Katy Benoit Safety Forum. It is encouraging that as a campus we were able to learn from the horrific events surrounding Benoit’s death. Her death was unnecessary, it could have been stopped had the proper steps been taken.
Events like the Rolling Stone articled set the clock back on rape culture 30 years. False reports and scandals dissuade real survivors from coming forward, especially in a social climate that still looks down on victims of sexual assault. Instead of hunting perpetrators, investigators will worry about whether the story is true or not, distracting them from the point of the investigation. The women reporting crimes will be the focus of the crime rather than the rapist.
Whether you’re a bystander, a victim or a journalist, honesty is always the best policy. Sources must always be double checked. But above all, tell the truth. It will do more good than harm, always.