College assault scandals and the uncertainty of truth

Sarah Jackmauh '15

Sarah Jackmauh ’15

In 2009, administrations from college campuses reported 1,850 instances of sexual assault. In 2012, that number increased by 50 percent with more than 3,900 reports, according to The Washington Post. Yet of these cases, one has arguably received the most media attention: a Rolling Stone article recounting a sexual assault scandal at the University of Virginia that was published and recently retracted. Despite its original purpose, which was to bring to light the unseen dangers on campuses, the article sparked a national controversy of the media’s role in sexual assault coverage.
The recent scandal involving the Rolling Stone article clearly shows that the media does not always publicize such events to bring attention and justice to females affected by sexual assault. All too often, news sources exaggerate rape accounts and make the victims feel more alone and more vulnerable.
As the media publishes more stories, many readers become more skeptical about the accuracy of the accounts. Stories are less captivating as they become more common, and when more articles with similar content break headlines, the public questions whether or not the accounts are true or just sensationalized, profitable reads.
Last November, Rolling Stone‘s “A Rape on Campus” recounted the supposed rape of a student at a prestigious university. The report stated that Jackie, the victim, was allegedly gang-raped by several members of a fraternity. Instead of becoming merely an eye-opener to the hundreds of college assault cases, the article was criticized for its factual inaccuracies and untrue rape allegations. Although more sources have confirmed that the article’s author, Rolling Stone reporter Ms. Sabrina Rubin Erdely, had exaggerated the details of the crime and included false information, many additional media outlets have become increasingly skeptical of other reports of campus rape.
Then Rolling Stone followed up with a retraction statement, written by members of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, addressing the faults of Ms. Erdely’s reporting. This article, published April 5, included an investigation that sought to prove or disprove the credibility of Ms. Erdely’s article. The Columbia group did just that, and stated that the article was inaccurate and untrue, according to the Rolling Stone
“Erdely and her editors had hoped their investigation would sound an alarm about campus sexual assault and would challenge Virginia and other universities to do better,” according to the Rolling Stone‘s retraction of the original article. “Instead, the magazine’s failure may have spread the idea that many women invent rape allegations.”

Sarah Jackmauh '15
Sarah Jackmauh ’15

The Rolling Stone coverage made college administrations slightly more aware of danger on their campuses but also indirectly heightened what I call the “boy cried wolf” epidemic, where some media sites question the truthfulness of the reports. Some critics believe that women who report abuse were exaggerating and lying to gain attention.
According to The Washington Post, Ms. Alex Pinkleton, a friend of Jackie’s and also a victim of rape herself, further hinted at the American response to inaccuracies in criminal reporting.
“One of my biggest fears with these inconsistencies emerging is that people will be unwilling to believe survivors in the future,” Ms. Pinkleton said. “However, we need to remember that the majority of survivors who come forward are telling the truth.”
With more and more concern about the accuracy of these accounts comes an attempt by some colleges to rewrite what defines sexual harassment. According to The New York Times, some colleges claim that what the victim experienced is just a hair away from the textbook definition of rape and therefore shove the story under the rug, or mishandle the case.
According to an editorial published by the The New York Times, some schools have redefined what constitutes sexual assault without consultation of the actual court-ordered meaning of rape in the non-college world. For example, a rape victim’s case at a New York university was handled in a mere week, whereas in the legal atmosphere, such reports would be investigated for two months straight, according to The New York Times.
“Moreover, sexual assault on campus should mean what it means in the outside world and in courts of law. Otherwise, the concept of sexual assault is trivialized, casting doubt on students courageous enough to report an assault,” professor of criminal law at Yale Law School Mr. Jed Rubenfield said in his The New York Times article “Mishandling Rape.”
Additionally, many publications claim that the victims themselves could have taken steps to prevent attacks by dressing more appropriately or dancing in a different way, according to nymag.com
Some media sources, however, ignore any possible inaccuracies in hopes of bringing justice to victims of harassment. Director Mr. Kirby Dick and producer Ms. Amy Ziering recently promoted their new documentary, The Hunting Ground, at the Sundance Film Festival. The film has sought to undercut both the “boy cried wolf” scenario and bring to light the importance of safety on college campuses around the United States.
“What we want to come across, is it’s a hunting ground, it’s a place where people are not safe, not because there’s a preponderance of perpetrators, but because there’s nothing in place to prosecute those people, and there’s no incentive to do so,” Ms. Ziering said, according to democracynow.org.
The Hunting Ground is one of many activist movements that seek to protect women on college campuses and bring to light the issues that are hidden all too often. Some American universities themselves have also taken action through ordering changes to their Greek life systems and college party atmospheres in order to combat instances of sexual misconduct.
The media’s skewed portrayal of a handful of rape stories often overlooks the stories of schools who do invest time and funding to enact preventative measures. Dartmouth College, the smallest Ivy League school, has put a ban on the sale of hard liquor in the college town of Hanover, New Hampshire. According to The New York Times, other schools including Bates College, Bowdoin College, Colby College, Colgate University and Stanford University have also banned hard alcohol on their own campuses in order to mandate their no tolerance policies.
While the efforts on numerous college campuses to protect women are a good start, women can and should do their part to protect themselves in compromising situations. Self-defense classes, like the Prepare course, which is part of Convent of the Sacred Heart’s health curriculum, grant women the confidence and ability to defend themselves. Furthermore, colleges have established programs which teach students the importance of controlled consumption, because drinking responsibly can also help prevent cases of assault. According to niaaa.nih.govover 690,000 assault cases in one year occurred under the influence of alcohol.
Despite the many undertakings to prevent and prepare for assault, many students remain at risk in colleges around the country. Although the sad reality is that the number of reported attacks continues to rise, the media should take the high road and steer from yellow journalism and inaccurate, sensational pieces regarding rapes. When colleges and the media stand together, these numbers will hopefully be reduced.
– Sarah Jackmauh, Content Editor