Belfast Telegraph

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Rolling Stone let down the real victims of rape

By Harriet Williamson

Published 11/04/2015

Harriet Williamson
Harriet Williamson

In November 2014, Rolling Stone published a horrifying account of a gang rape on the University of Virginia's campus, allegedly perpetrated by seven members of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity.

The article detailed the university's callous self-preservation tactics and the self-interested responses of the victim's friends on the night of her alleged assault. It was shocking, sickening and an explosive example of the rape culture that saturates American (and British) campuses.

The only problem? The story wasn't true. Within days of the piece's publication, commentators questioned its veracity and the Washington Post uncovered details that ascertained that events could not have taken place as the Rolling Stone article described. 'A Rape on Campus' has been formally retracted and last week the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism report, compiled by Pulitzer-winning journalist and dean Steve Coll and commissioned by Rolling Stone itself, was published.

The Columbia report examines in great detail the journalistic failings that lead to the story being released without proper verification of the facts and without giving all the parties depicted in the piece a chance to tell their sides of the story.

This makes me angry. I'm angry because what should have been a rigorous journalistic investigation has succeeded in drawing more attention to false allegations of rape and diverting focus from the problem of sexual assault and harassment on university campuses.

I'm angry because veteran reporters, editors and fact-checkers at Rolling Stone should have known better than to rely on a single source to carry and verify a complex story that alleged criminal wrongdoing on the part of UVA students and neglect on the part of the university administration.

When campus rapes and assaults happen - and they do happen with alarming regularity - it is the responsibility of journalists to report on them in a sensitive and ethical manner. This means checking all the facts. The magazine has also let down survivors of rape, of which there are estimated to be 85,000 in Britain every year and 300,000 in the USA.

The frightening thing is the hostile responses in light of the Columbia report. Many will use this as an example of how women lie about rape and how victims cannot be believed. We cannot allow this staggering failure of journalism to further silence real victims of rape and sexual assault.

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