The discrediting of a Rolling Stone article about an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia has triggered concerns that the journalistic fiasco could dissuade other victims from speaking out in the future.
If the victims worry that their claims will be doubted, then they will be less likely to say anything, advocates say.
"I do worry about survivors feeling like they should come forward," Rebecca Weybright, executive director of The Sexual Assault Resource Agency in Charlottesville, Virginia, told NBC News last month, before Rolling Stone's decision to retract the story. "I think survivors often feel blamed themselves from the get-go. They feel like they did something wrong, or they did something to cause a sexual assault to happen."
The article, written by Sabrina Rubin Erdely and published online in November, detailed a brutal gang rape of a UVA student named "Jackie" at the school's Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house. It sparked outrage and prompted the president of the university to suspend all fraternities for the rest of the semester.
After other journalists raised doubts about the story, Rolling Stone commissioned an investigation by the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. The school found that the article violated "basic, even routine journalistic practice."
The most egregious transgressions were Erdely's failure to contact three of Jackie's friends, to identify her alleged attackers and give Phi Kappa Psi an adequate chance to respond. Police said they were unable to verify Jackie's account.
The article's unraveling has damaged Rolling Stone's reputation, and Erdely's. But it could also undermine broader attempts to raise awareness of sexual assaults on university campuses, advocates say.
That includes Jackie's friends.
"I hope the fact that this one story has had its validity called into question by no means mitigates the larger issue," Ryan Duffin, who was mentioned Rolling Stone article under a pseudonym, told NBC News.
Another friend, Alex Stock, who was also in the article anonymously, added: "The disservice that happened is the sexual assault cases that weren't so, you know, 'movie plot,' are the ones that don't get any attention."
Jackie has chosen not to comment on the case, her lawyer, Palma Pustilnik, has said.
Meanwhile, University of Virginia's President Teresa Sullivan said that the Rolling Stone article "did nothing to combat sexual violence, and it damaged serious efforts to address the issue."
But other advocates said that one splashy, unusual incident would do little to hinder a growing national movement to curb sexual assaults on college campuses.
"There's more and more attention to sexual assaults on campus, and what campuses need to do to prevent them," Jane Stapleton, director of the University of New Hampshire's Prevention Innovations center, told the Associated Press. "It's not inevitable. We can stop it."
In an apology Sunday night, Erdely said she didn't want her mistakes to overshadow the issue she'd set out to illuminate. "I hope that my mistakes in reporting this story do not silence the voices of victims that need to be heard," she said.
- Phi Kappa Psi Plans to Sue Rolling Stone Over Discredited UVA Rape Article
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— with The Associated Press