When I was in journalism school I was told, not just to find the story, but a compelling narrator to tell that story. We were to personalize issues so that, I suppose, the audience could or would relate. This bothered me, not just from a political perspective, because individualizing systemic issues is not always helpful in terms of addressing the larger systems, contexts, and issues at play, but because I generally find that kind of reporting to be kind of, well, cheesy. It’s also the kind of reporting journalists are encouraged to do by most mainstream outlets.
It feels like Hollywood movie-style journalism, wherein all news must be spoon-fed to the consumer in an entertaining, easy-to-digest way. There have to be characters and plots, climaxes and conclusions. And while, undoubtedly, those kinds of stories can be useful and there is absolutely nothing wrong with capturing an audience or with being engaged or entertained by a story, seeking to turn issues and events into a dramatic personal narrative isn’t always the best way towards accurate and ethical coverage. Certainly it isn’t the best way to affect change.
Because I am a feminist journalist, I don’t see gendered issues as simply personal stories, despite the fact that women’s personal stories are of utmost importance. I see individual stories and experiences within a larger context and always as political. I see my own personal stories as political and generally try to show the ways in which these experiences are shaped by larger systems of power and by socialization in a capitalist patriarchy. In other words, “the personal is political” isn’t just a saying. It is true and it is imperative in terms of our fight towards an equitable world.
But mainstream media loves a good story. And it’s clear that journalists are pressured to find these — the most dramatic, the most emotive. Rather than be pushed to look at systemic factors to explain the personal stories they find so riveting, they are pushed to do the opposite. And that’s how we end up with Jackie’s story — the now infamous subject of the Rolling Stone article intended to expose an insidious rape culture on college campuses. In fact, this is how we end up with most stories of rape and assault that are covered by the media. It’s why male violence against women is predominantly understood as “stranger danger” — why we see predators as lone crazies instead of as our neighbours, our friends, our boyfriends, our fathers, our employers, or our classmates. It’s why we don’t understand that women experience oppression and abuse in much less exciting and dramatic ways than the salacious ways depicted on television, which is to say that it’s simply and for the most part happening in our homes, on a daily basis. Strange men are dangerous to women, but no more so than the ones they already know, are related to, or are already living and sleeping with. The media seeks out particular stories and particular victims, often, not for educational purposes or for the social good, so much as because they know these stories of victimization will pull in an audience and simultaneously feed stereotypes audiences are already comfortable with.
Robert Jensen summarized this fact well, in a piece for teleSUR, pointing out that the mainstream media ignores the context of patriarchy when covering sexual assault (they also tend to consistently ignore the context of colonialism and capitalism in most news stories — systems that work in favour of mainstream media and against the marginalized).
That’s the context that mainstream news media ignores and the evaluation they run from. Instead, the focus tends to be on individual victims/survivors and individual perpetrators. The more dramatic the story, the more likely it will be covered by journalists, and the less likely we’ll learn much about society. “Routine” rapes are so routine that most aren’t reported in our anti-feminist culture, which means they are largely invisible to journalism. And, most important in this case, the all-male institutions that serve as rape factories, such as fraternities, are rarely the subject of serious reporting absent this kind of sensationalized case.
What Sabrina Rubin Erdely, the journalist who wrote the Rolling Stone story did, in all likelihood, was to follow her training and, in many ways, journalistic standards. Yes, of course they should have fact-checked the story and looked for other sources, that is inarguable. But I think what really needs to be under investigation here is the way we train journalists and the way in which the media covers stories — particularly stories that deal with systemic power, violence, and inequality. Stories of poverty that focus on individuals overcoming their circumstances, stories of addiction that ignore histories of colonialism or abuse, stories of prostitution that ignore the same, stories of murdered women that ignore male power and masculinity, stories of police violence that ignore racism and poverty… I could go on. We’re bolstering the neoliberal American dream that feeds us the lie that hardship can be overcome through perseverance, faith, or pure luck. This story is America’s favorite one for a reason: it masks the depressing reality that class mobility is a myth and that no amount of positive thinking will erase race and gender oppression.
So the details of Erdely’s story are unverifiable. But what does this mean? What have we learned from this situation? Well, we’ve learned that a few people failed to do their jobs properly. We’ve learned that there are “discrepancies” in Jackie’s story. And we’ve learned nothing about rape and rape culture. There are “discrepancies” in any story. People have pretty unreliable memories when it comes to details. While we don’t know what happened to Jackie, “discrepancies” and a failure to properly fact-check a story, confirm details, or follow-up with other sources does not mean a rape didn’t take place. In fact, based on the details, it sounds like Jackie was assaulted by more than one man, the night she claimed she was, though the specifics of exactly how that assault went down are very blurry.
Catherine Porter wrote, for the Toronto Star, about the way in which the media’s desire for the “perfect victim” erases “bad victims,” in turn contributing to dangerous and inaccurate myths about rape. But it’s that search for a “good story” that gets us here. It’s that desire to find a compelling, “relatable” (who can relate to the chosen narrators is something else to consider, when we’re casting white middle class people in starring roles), personal narrative — one with likable characters and plotlines we are comfortable with — that leads journalists to find and center stories like Jackie’s. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with telling Jackie’s story. Her story, whatever it is, should be told. But rape shouldn’t need a compelling narrative or a likeable star in order to be reported on. What we should be concerned about, with regard to irresponsible journalism, is the media’s (and media-consumers’) aversion to politicizing and contextualizing that which can only truly be understood by doing both.
The thing is that Jackie isn’t the only one. She wasn’t the only one who was (probably) raped in a fraternity and she is not the only victim of sexual assault, more generally. She is one of many. And because we’ve invested so much in her story, which has (for now) proved unprovable, the thousands of other victims — even if we are only looking at victims on college campuses — are rendered invisible. “Find the story” isn’t a useful framework for journalists to work with if the story begins and ends with an individual and doesn’t move beyond the personal narrative, precisely because individuals can be unreliable narrators. But unreliable narrators do not negate the very real, widespread problem that is violence against women. And blurry, imperfect stories and victims do not mean that rape culture on college campuses is not ubiquitous.