Reporters must be careful but accurate when writing about campus rape culture

In November 2014, Rolling Stone released an article called “A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA.” The shocking story revealed a gang rape at the fraternity Phi Psi and quickly went viral. By April, the story had been almost completely discredited and the article retracted by the magazine.

The issue of sexual assault on college campuses is finally entering mainstream conversations, but preconceived notions and expectations of what rape looks like are preventing the truth from coming out. People are hurting the movement they are trying to support.

However, it is difficult to balance searching for the truth with supporting the voices of survivors.

“We are experiencing a culture shift in which we are starting, barely, but we are starting to put more priority on survivors’ voices,” said sophomore Molly Anne Marcotte, wellness educator and the chair of judicial affairs. “We are not going to take sexual violence seriously until we see it with our own eyes as the epidemic that it is.”

Many stories have surfaced in the news lately about sexual assault on college campuses, lending credibility to the rising movement. However, the Rolling Stone article has hurt more than it helped due to carelessness on the part of the magazine. Many have used the controversy as an excuse to discredit the movement.

“A sequence of events shouldn’t be thought of as ‘that didn’t happen, so the survivor must be wrong,’” said sophomore and women’s, gender and sexuality studies major Lucy Kokenge-Hartsock. “That entire sequence of events wasn’t exactly right, but we have an understanding of trauma, and we have an understanding that like this person felt violated. That’s more important.”

Sabrina Rubin Erdely, the reporter who wrote the article, spread false information, not only due to unsound journalistic practices but also to larger misconceptions about how to approach cases of sexual assault in the news.

“I think she felt passionate about wanting to get the word out on the hidden rape culture on college campuses in America,” said part-time Guilford lecturer and former Rolling Stone writer Parke Puterbaugh. “Perhaps too passionate for her own good because it clouded her objectivity.”

As a result, the article has been discredited, fueling the fire of naysayers who discredit the entire movement. This case should not be considered representative of all college rape cases.

Journalists, activists and everyone else should take a lesson from this botched article. Rape culture remains real and prevalent on college campuses, but to spread the message of reclaiming our culture, everyone involved must pay attention to learning the truth. The impact can be larger than they realize.

“Reporters need to understand the role they play when it comes to listening to a victim’s story,” said CCE senior and wellness educator Shannon King, who plans to create a sexual assault advocacy group for CCE students. “It’s not to be taken lightly, and it’s not to be used for entertainment.”

Each person who is a part of raising up survivors’ voices affects how their voices will be heard.

“This reporter had no idea the impact this would have on society,” said senior and women’s, gender and sexuality studies minor Camden Lambert. “She should have taken that into account because when it comes out that there are discrepancies that’s what people are going to remember.”

The Guilford community has had its own share of problems with sexual assault, but many on campus are working to improve the approach. April is designated as Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and King encourages students to attend events such as Support is Love to learn what support of survivors should look like.

The event will be held on April 29 from 1:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. in the Moon Room.

Through events and conversation around challenging preconceived notions, students at Guilford can help advocate for this issue to make a difference — without risking the very movement they want to support.