Transactions of trust

Like so many people, last month I read Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s Rolling Stone article about the culture of rape at the University of Virginia and travelled an emotional roller coaster of anger, sadness and disgust. I spent the rest of the day with a sickness throbbing in my heart and stomach.

I wanted to be sick. I wanted to cry. But then UVA announced it was making changes in response to the article, and I was insanely proud of journalism for making a difference.

So, last week – when The Washington Post found problematic holes in the assault story told by Erdely’s main subject – I was devastated. Maybe it wasn’t the most sophisticated reaction, but I just kept thinking, “This is so unfortunate!” Rape victims already have enough trouble getting people – law enforcement included – to believe them. The absolute last thing they needed, I thought, was for a high-profile rape story to actually be untrue.

Now, to be clear, I don’t necessarily think Jackie is lying; she continues to stand by her story, and a number of bloggers and journalists have come – if not to her defense, specifically – at least to the defense of rape victims more broadly and their ability to recount what happened to them. But still, the very fact that there are legitimate questions about Jackie’s story gives ammunition to those who, as a rule, believe women make up stories of assault for some ulterior motive.

It is, indeed, unfortunate. And so is the hit journalism has taken. It’s become clear that Erdely and Rolling Stone made major mistakes all along the way in the reporting, editing and publishing of this story. Their fact-checking was inadequate and they failed to ask important questions.

The thing is, in many ways, journalism is built entirely on transactions of trust. When we read or see something in the news, we’re trusting that it’s true. When we dismiss a publication or network for being biased or inaccurate, what we’re really saying is that we don’t trust them. On the flip side, reporters work hard to build trust with sources. After all, people won’t talk to you if they don’t trust you. For example, when I was in Nashville this summer covering the LCWR annual assembly, many sisters were wary of talking to me because, previously, they had been burned by the media.

In one particular instance, on the last day of the assembly, I asked a group of sisters to comment on their experience that week, and they absolutely refused to speak to me – that is until we just started chatting, not reporter-to-source, but person-to-person. And once they knew who I was and what I wanted, they not only spoke freely, but enthusiastically recommended more sisters for me to interview.

Without these trust transactions, journalism cannot happen. Not good journalism, anyway.

I think it’s unclear what, if anything, will be the fallout from this debacle. If I had to guess, I’d say Rolling Stone will be okay (à la This American Life), but Erdely will probably suffer (à la Stephen Glass). My hope is that the whole thing will make us painfully aware of how broken our systems are when it comes to reporting rape and sexual assault.

Because even if Jackie’s story turns out to be fabricated, we can’t forget that UVA and many, many other campuses nationwide still have a horrible track record when it comes to handling sexual assault. That doesn’t change. And if her story is true, we have to think long and hard about the ways the system failed her – about how and why she didn’t feel comfortable going immediately to the hospital, about how and why there was no police report for Erdley to check against.

It’s rather sad that that’s where we are as society, but there it is. The fact of the matter is, we all have a lot to do when it comes to the systematic dismissal of women in our world, journalists included. Perhaps even journalists especially.

At GSR, our focus – obviously – is women religious, but if you really think about it, we’re also about women’s empowerment more broadly. We’re telling the stories about women of faith doing good, making a difference and standing up for justice. They are strong moral agents, and these stories can and should resonate across denominational lines, which is important when considering how we change the global narrative about women – it’s also why we need good, careful journalists to handle these topics.

It’s important that we get them right, that we don’t give misogyny an easy target. What happened at Rolling Stone makes me sick to my stomach, but in the spirit of Advent, I’m choosing to remain hopeful that some good can come from it. 

[Dawn Cherie Araujo is staff reporter for Global Sisters Report, based in Kansas City, Mo.]