I’m not going to dwell here on the Rolling Stone reporting about an alleged gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity party. Lots of excellent journalists have commented on Rolling Stone’s faulty reporting and the related issues, and I’ll link to some of the pieces I have seen at the end of this piece.
I will say this about the Rolling Stone story: If men from the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity didn’t rape “Jackie,” the Rolling Stone’s central source, the story irresponsibly smeared any innocent men in the fraternity. If “Jackie” was raped, the story irresponsibly gave millions of rape survivors one more reason not to tell their stories. Rape is the most underreported violent crime in our society and the greatest tragedy of this journalistic travesty is that the outcry over the Rolling Stone story will undoubtedly cause some rape survivors to keep the crimes against them secret, out of fear that they won’t be believed. When writing about rape, journalists have to get their facts right. Being wrong in either direction is grossly irresponsible.
My point here, though, is not to write one more commentary on the sins of the Rolling Stone. I am writing to provide advice for journalists writing about rape and other intimate and/or traumatic topics.
For various reasons, I have interviewed dozens of survivors of sexual abuse, and dozens more people about other topics that caused emotional turmoil in their lives: abortion, domestic violence, murders of loved ones, addictions, war, living as refugees or closeted gays or lesbians. I’ve also interviewed people accused or convicted of sexual crimes.
Here are some tips for interviewing these people and checking out their stories (some of the tips may be directly relevant to the Rolling Stone story, but I generally won’t make further connections to the story, because I don’t know enough about what the Rolling Stone reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely and editors and fact-checkers did and didn’t do):
Always keep an open mind
A rape survivor doesn’t have to prove her story to you. But you don’t have to publish her story. Or all of her story. Gather all the information you can from all the sources you can. Then assess and write your story. If you have some holes, gather some more information. You can’t know what the story is until you’ve done all your reporting. One of the worst mistakes you can make is drawing conclusions prematurely.
Be certain before you publish
If anyone – reporter or editors – has any doubts about the story, it’s not ready for publication. Maybe you do more work. Maybe you don’t write it as strongly as you wish you could. Maybe you walk away from the story.
Use third parties
Some of my most effective interviews about rape and other difficult topics have been set up by third parties: friends, counselors, fellow rape survivors. I would win the confidence of people the source trusted and they would vouch for me (and for the source) and help me connect with the person and sometimes sit in on the interview for moral support.
Third parties may also be able to confirm or refute details or provide documentation.
Gather details relentlessly
Of course, you need to gather details of the assault – or whatever traumatic incident you’re writing about. But the other details will help you tell the story and they’ll help you confirm pieces of the story.
If the source comments on the weather, that’s a detail you can confirm. It doesn’t tell you she’s telling the truth about the assault, but it may tell you that some of her memory of that day is accurate — or not.
Memories are always inaccurate
As I blogged last year, I was able to document from a video that more than a dozen people had inaccurate (but vivid) memories of a championship game that they had played in and watched. These were honest people with no reason to exaggerate, and even some for whom the actual facts were more flattering. Exaggeration is how people tell stories, but it should not be how journalists tell stories.
People will get details wrong about incidents they just witnessed, even in exercises where you ask them to pay close attention.
Memory will be an even more unreliable source of details in a crime where the victim may shut down mentally during the crime to help deal with the trauma or where the mind might purge memories of some details as a coping mechanism or where nightmares and fear may exaggerate other details or fill gaps incorrectly. Inaccuracy or inconsistency doesn’t mean a source lied, only that she’s human. Start with the memories, then see what you can confirm and what gaps you can fill in
Seek confirmation of context
I wrote some stories about a girl who was raped in the house of a boy she dated. Of course, I couldn’t confirm what happened in the room because, if her story was true, only the two of them were present. But she described the layout of the house and where his room was. I was able to confirm the layout from the floor plan at the county assessor’s house, and it was as she described. That didn’t prove she had been raped in the home, but it was a strong indicator that she had been there. And, if the layout was completely wrong, that would be a red flag to check out (she said it happened upstairs; if the home was a one-story ranch house, I’d have concerns about her story).
A man who alleged sexual abuse by a group-home counselor claimed to always be alone when the abuse happened. So I couldn’t verify the victim’s account of what happened when they were alone. But I was able to confirm multiple details about other things in his story: I could confirm his story about a fire at the home; he said the counselor always gave him baseball cards after seeking sexual favors from him, and other boys in the home recalled his outstanding baseball card collection; other boys confirmed other details about the home and the alleged abuser. I found some other victims of the same man, and many details of their stories were similar.
Ask “How do you know that?”
This is journalism’s most important question. If someone is recalling a date for you, ask how they remember what day it was. If it was the day of a concert, and she has the ticket stub or an email confirming her ticket purchase, or a picture taken from the concert, you have some confirmation of context details. If, on the other hand, the concert was a different date than she originally gave you, you have an opportunity to clarify, rather than being caught in a contradiction.
One source for a story on sexual abuse provided me his medical records, which confirmed that he had been treated for post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from sexual abuse. The records didn’t prove his story, but proved that medical professionals took his story seriously (and that he had been treated).
In another story, involving sexual abuse of children, I found a psychological report validating the accusations in a divorce file in the district court. In another case, a police report included a summary of injuries documented by the emergency room doctor.
Extensive court files provided important details and confirmation for a story about a domestic-violence survivor who seemed like a shaky source. I had strong concerns about her emotional stability, which doesn’t tell you that she’s lying. It may just tell you that what she experienced had profound impact. The documentation made the difference between proceeding with the story and deciding she wasn’t reliable enough to base the story on.
Understand the person
Don’t start your interview by going right to the sexual assault. Ask about the person — about family, school, work, interests, health. This is not “small talk.” It helps on at least two levels:
- The discussion of daily life gives the person some time to grow comfortable with you, to decide whether to trust you with the intimate story you’re seeking. And it gives you some context that might be easy to confirm.
- The more you understand the person, the better questions you can ask and the better you can understand the story and place it in context of the person’s life.
Don’t control the interview tightly with your rapid-fire questions. Ask open-ended questions that invite the source to tell his story. He’ll probably get to the difficult part of the story on his own, when he’s ready. If not, you can ask the tough questions when you need to.
Loss of control is a huge mental and emotional issue for survivors of sexual or domestic abuse and for refugees. Sharing control in the interview will sometimes help them address the hardest issues.
You can’t give a source complete control of the story. For instance, you can’t let the source dictate how you write it (though you might negotiate some points, such as how to identify her; more on that shortly).
In doing a story on women who had decided to have abortions or to continue with troubled pregnancies, I told the women (with my editors’ permission) that they could decide after the interview whether the story would be for publication (we were going to be using names and photographs of the women). That helped me get some interviews I wouldn’t have been able to get otherwise. Some women backed out, but even those interviews helped the story. And giving them that unusual level of control gave me the chance to earn the trust of women who probably wouldn’t have agreed to interviews.
Unless you’ve made such a promise, you don’t necessarily have to kill the story if a source decides to back out on the story after an interview, as the Rolling Stone’s source reportedly did. But such a request should be a huge red flag. You at least need to understand whether the source’s reluctance is because she was lying to you or was unsure of some details.
Confront the accused
If you’re identifying the accuser by name or other identifying features (such as an organization), you absolutely need to try to talk to the person who is identified in your story as the rapist (or anyone else accused of a crime). You are likely to end up talking to an attorney rather than the actual attacker, but sometimes you can actually talk to the accused.
In my days of covering sexual abuse by priests, I had information about accusations against a particular priest. I didn’t have the story nailed down enough to publish yet, but I had investigated deeply enough to be confident that it was true. I visited the priest and he confirmed that the accusation had been investigated. He proclaimed his innocence, but didn’t realize that he was the person providing me confirmation of the investigation. He gave me enough information about who investigated what that I was able to get further confirmation from his religious order, and also to nail down that they had not reported the case to police.
In the University of Virginia case, we have two primary apparent possibilities: the woman is telling the truth about the gang rape but has some details confused, or the rape didn’t happen. If the Rolling Stone’s source is mostly telling the truth, confronting the men at the fraternity might have helped confirm that something happened. In many cases of sexual assault, the alleged assailant confirms that the two had sex, but claims it was consensual. If someone had confirmed that multiple men had sex with the woman, but denied that it was a gang rape (and raised some of the questions about details in her story), that would have helped Rolling Stone strengthen the story before publication. If the rape didn’t happen, interviews with the frat members would have forced the reporter to address those problems before publication.
The accused is not likely to admit guilt in your interview and may not talk at all. But fairness and diligence demand that you talk to the accused. If a source insists that you not talk to the accused, then maybe that source’s story isn’t ready for publication.
Ask the source how to prove her story
Don’t tell the source that you doubt her story, but be clear to her that you have to seek verification where you can. Tell her that the accused might deny the accusations (whether you name him or not). You have to nail down details and talk to other people to help her story withstand any criticism.
Ask where else she went the day or night of the incident. Check out those places to see if they have security cameras and if you can have access to them. Confirmation that she was at or near the location of the incident bolsters the story. Did she email or text anyone about the attack itself or the surrounding incidents (such as a party, dinner or concert)? Did she shoot a selfie with the alleged assailant? If so, the photo will have time and place in its metadata. Did she shoot photos of other friends at the party or concert? They might be people you need to interview. Did she pay for anything that night with a credit or debit card? That receipt or account record might place her at or near the location (or raise some questions, by showing she was somewhere else).
Seek similar stories
Rape is not a crime people tend to do just once. My stories about sexual abuse by priests and a counselor at a group home were bolstered by finding multiple victims. The victims often didn’t know that each other had been abused by the same person.
I found other victims by asking the first people I talked to who lived in that home, who were other altar boys in that church, etc. Sometimes I could track them down, sometimes I couldn’t. One survivor of abuse let me borrow his yearbook. I started tracking down classmates and soon found another victim, who had never talked to the first victim, but the details of the assault and surrounding circumstances were eerily similar.
Avoid fictional names
Your story needs to ring true. Using fictional names tells readers that it’s OK with you and your source to make something up. Readers will (and should) wonder what else you decided it was OK to make up.
In telling stories of survivors of sexual abuse, who did not want their full names used, I often persuaded them to let me identify them by their middle names. Many middle names are common, and usually only our best friends know our middle names. I have identified people by childhood nicknames. Some of the people I interviewed who had been sexually abused in their youth had legally changed their names (that tells you something profound about how damaging this crime can be to your very identity as a person; they wanted to become someone else). I was able to persuade some of them to let me identify them by their birth names (in one case by the full birth name). I disclosed that I was using a birth name or childhood nickname or middle name, and the disclosure added credibility to the story while protecting the identity of the survivor.
If we can’t agree on a factual name to use, I’d rather use a description such as “the tall, redheaded sophomore” or “the former small-town cheerleader.” Again, you’ll need to negotiate what kind of description is acceptable to your source.
Vague is OK in reporting on sexual assault, but inaccurate is not.
Earlier posts dealing with sexual assault
Kristen Hare’s 11 resources for reporting responsibly about rape
Commentary on the Rolling Stone rape story
T. Rees Shapiro’s Key elements of Rolling Stone’s U.Va. gang rape allegations in doubt
Erik Wemple’s Rolling Stone whiffs in reporting on alleged rape
Margaret Sullivan’s How to survive a journalistic disaster 101