Acknowledging discrepancies in its controversial story about an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia, Rolling Stone magazine issued an apology on Friday. There is no underestimating the damage caused by the magazine’s faulty reporting, exacerbated by its shoddy effort to shift blame to its source even as it admitted inaccuracies.
The extent of those inaccuracies is still being sorted out. But it’s not too soon to point to some possible casualties: the reputations of the university, of a fraternity named in the report and of journalism. The much-needed — the still much-needed — effort to reform how universities seek to prevent and respond to sexual assaults. And, most distressing, the future rape victims who may find themselves less believed — or who, out of fear that they won’t be believed, tragically will decide to stay silent.
“A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA” is the headline of the Rolling Stone story, published online Nov. 19. It recounted allegations by a student who said she was raped by seven men at a 2012 fraternity party. Many, we included, accepted the account and criticized the university administration for an indifferent response.
Several key aspects of the young woman’s story have been called into question, and the fraternity, Phi Kappa Psi, issued a statement Friday saying that it had “no knowledge” of the alleged acts being committed on its premises or by its members. The student stood by her account in interviews with a Post reporter. A group of her friends said they believe something traumatic happened to her, though they have now come to doubt her account. Charlottesville police are investigating, at the university’s request, and we hope they bring better clarity to the situation.
As the doubts and discrepancies are sorted out, here are some truths that must not get lost: Sexual assault, often associated with excessive alcohol consumption, is a scourge that, for far too long, has not been taken seriously enough by colleges and universities. The critical work of putting in place a system that effectively and fairly investigates allegations of sexual assaults, supports victims and provides for due process must continue with even more urgency.
The University of Virginia is certainly no exception to those truths, as its officials have acknowledged in recent days. The fact that it apparently never expels students for sexual assault, the outpouring of complaints from other students and the federal investigation of the school for possible noncompliance with Title IX equal rights protections all point to a serious problem.
To the university’s credit, it responded to Friday’s revelations with exactly the right message. “Despite doubts that have been cast on the Rolling Stone story, we need to keep our eyes on the prize, which is nothing less than zero tolerance for rape,” said Helen Dragas, a member of the university’s governing board of visitors. “Our primary concern must be for the well-being of our students. We need to get this right for them, and do so with no hesitation or concern for image.”