On March 23, the Charlottesville Police Department officially suspended its four-month investigation of a gang rape that allegedly happened at a University of Virginia fraternity house in 2012. The report, stating there was “no basis to conclude that anything happened,” is the latest episode in a complicated story that raises serious questions about journalism, universities, and rape victims. In a refreshing departure from some recent news stories about law enforcement, the Charlottesville Police Department emerges as a shining example of how an investigation should be conducted.

The story began in May 2013 when a University of Virginia student identified only as “Jackie” told the associate dean of students that she had been the victim of a sexual assault. According to “Jackie,” her date lured her into a secluded room at a fraternity house, and seven men raped her while another man watched. “Jackie” identified the street but did not name the fraternity (there are five fraternity houses there).

Fast-forward to November 2014, when Rolling Stone magazine published an explosive account of “Jackie’s” ordeal. The magazine story gave a first name to “Jackie’s” assailant (“Drew”), identified the fraternity (Phi Kappa Psi), and described a campus culture and administration that tolerated rape. The University of Virginia responded by suspending all fraternities and promising to establish new policies to limit drinking and protect female students.

But doubters immediately began to question “Jackie’s” account and the integrity of Sabrina Erdely, the journalist who had researched and written the story. On December 5 Rolling Stone issued an apology for the story, noting that there were significant discrepancies in “Jackie’s” account of what had happened. A few weeks later the University lifted the suspension on campus fraternities.

Journalists who fact-checked the Rolling Stone article said that Erdely both ignored and misrepresented statements by “Jackie’s” friends (whose recollections were independently verified later). For example, one friend testified that Erdely had never spoken to him at all—yet she used him as a source. Journalists also discovered that the alleged assailant (“Drew”) appears to have been a fabrication.

Erdely later admitted that she had not interviewed any of the men accused of the rape, explaining that the contact page on the fraternity’s website “was pretty outdated.” But Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple argued that the story required “every possible step to reach out and interview them, including e-mails, phone calls, certified letters, FedEx letters, UPS letters and, if all of that fails, a knock on the door. No effort short of all that qualifies as journalism.”

Fact-checkers discovered other factual errors, For example, there was no party at the Phi Kappa Psi house on September 28, and the alleged rape could not have been part of a pledging ritual, as Erdely claimed: UVA pledging is done in the spring, not in September.

The contrasts between Sabrina Erdely’s journalistic practices and the Charlottesville police investigation are stark and startling. The police:

  • spoke to 70 people, including “Jackie’s” friends, her co-workers, and Phi Kappa Psi fraternity brothers
  • checked bank records and found no expenditures “that would reflect purchases for a fraternity party or large gathering” in September 2012
  • found a photograph time-stamped from that night showing the frat house mostly empty
  • obtained a court order to check a phone call allegedly made by “Drew”
  • As a March 25 editorial in The Roanoke Times noted, “This kind of investigation may be routine police work, but certainly appears thorough and impressive.” (Astonishingly, although Rolling Stone apologized for publishing Erdely’s story, she declared she could not have done it “any better.”)

Equally impressive is the Department’s sensitivity to victims of sexual assault. Police Chief Timothy Longo noted that its investigation doesn’t mean something terrible did not happen to “Jackie” that September night. “We would’ve loved to have had Jackie come in…and tell us what happened so we can obtain justice…even if the facts were different,” Longo said at a press conference. He also noted that the story—painful as it was—helped identify sexual assault as an issue of concern on college campuses.

Although Chief Longo did not go into detail about the problems at colleges and universities, a review of news stories about “Jackie’s” allegations points to a number of serious issues. For example, federal regulations sometimes prevent police from investigating sexual assaults on students. As the police report about “Jackie’s” allegations explains, “Federal laws governing privacy and protection of certain records in the possession of academic institutions obstructed our ability to access records that may have been relevant to our investigation.”

Because college administrators can’t always turn cases over to police, they have to develop their own procedures, which sometimes fall far short of standard criminal justice practices. For example, it’s unclear whether the University of Virginia’s associate dean tried to investigate “Jackie’s” charges. (In July 2014 I published a Law Enforcement Today article about inadequate administrative responses to sexual assaults on campuses.)

So far no steps have been taken to address the problems presented by federal privacy requirements. But the federal government has begun to confront institutional laxness about campus sexual assaults. In January 2014 President Barack Obama established the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault. In May 2014 the Department of Education published a list of colleges and universities under investigation for violations of Title IX, a federal statute that has been widely used by survivors of sexual assault to seek justice. The University of Virginia is under investigation, along with Ohio State University, the University of California at Berkeley, Arizona State University, Knox College, Swarthmore College, Catholic University of America, Harvard, Princeton, and Dartmouth and other institutions of higher education.

“Jackie’s” story also points to journalistic issues associated with stories about sexual assault: A sensitive reporter might feel the same reluctance that Erdely experienced about asking a victim to relive a traumatic experience. Another complication is that trauma can cause memory loss and confusion. How, then, can a journalist pursue a rigorous fact-checking process? Bruce Shapiro, Executive Director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, explains, “I do think that when the emotional valence of a story is this high, you really have to verify it.” One recommendation is for reporters to work only with victims strong enough to endure close journalistic scrutiny.

The confusing and conflicting facts about “Jackie’s” story also raise questions about what will happen to future victims of sexual assault. Annie Clark, co-founder of End Rape on Campus, worries that victims will be reluctant to come forward. The uproar over the Rolling Stone story, she says, “reinforces a culture that already exists: If you come forward you won’t be believed, you’ll be shamed and blamed. We’ve been working on trying to fix this for decades.”

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Jean Reynolds, Ph.D. is Professor Emeritus of English at Polk State College, where she taught report writing and communication skills in the criminal justice program. She is the author of ten books, including Police Talk (Pearson), and she publishes a Police Writer Newsletter. Visit her website at www.YourPoliceWrite.com for free report writing resources. Go to www.Amazon.com for a free preview of her book Criminal Justice Report Writing. Dr. Reynolds is the police report writing expert for Law Enforcement Today.