One of the important questions raised by Rolling Stone’s University of Virginia rape story is how journalists write about the victims.

The article centered on an account of a woman, whom the reporter named Jackie, who said she had been gang raped on campus. It reminded me of a column I wrote awhile back on female veterans who had been raped during their military service. The pained reaction I got from the rape victims I had interviewed has troubled me ever since.

I had been intrigued by news that the number of homeless female veterans was rising despite a decline nationally in the homeless population. The New York Times had reported in 2013 that this was the “fastest growing segment of the homeless population” and that “a common pathway to homelessness for women, researchers and psychologists said, is military sexual trauma, or M.S.T., from assaults or harassment during their service, which can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder.”

I wanted to learn more. I talked to a lawyer representing the female vets, to the Department of Veterans Affairs and finally to a group helping the vets. At my request, the organization arranged for me to meet with three women on the condition I used pseudonyms. I agreed. Their stories were moving and I wrote about them in Truthdig in September.

Shortly after my column was posted, I received an email from the head of the group. He said I had not sufficiently disguised the women and one of them — whose story of her rape led the column — was especially upset.

We changed the piece, removing details and much of her story. I felt conflicting emotions — guilt that I had hurt someone who had suffered so much, but also a bit mad. I had written the column to help these veterans — and perhaps others who have not sought assistance — by telling of their plight. I thought it was helpful, and still do. At the organization’s request, I used pseudonyms, even though it’s a practice I don’t like. “No good deed goes unpunished,” I thought ruefully, recalling the words of the late Clare Boothe Luce.

Being so conflicted, I have replayed the event in my mind frequently, wondering if I should have handled it differently. I wonder if Sabrina Rubin Erdely, who reported and wrote the Rolling Stone story, is having the same kind of thoughts.

Erdely was introduced to Jackie by Emily Renda, a University of Virginia graduate who works for the school as a sexual violence awareness specialist, T. Rees Shapiro of The Washington Post reported. Renda told the Post she had met Jackie in fall 2013. Jackie, Renda said, had told her she had been raped by five men, although she was later quoted in the Rolling Stone article as saying there had been seven. This is one of the discrepancies that has turned up in her account.

Renda, a rape victim, is an activist on the issue and believes in telling her story to others. “Each time, I’ve been contacted by other survivors who just like me, are learning and reaffirming that they … have never been alone,” she wrote in The Huffington Post.

After Renda introduced reporter Erdely to Jackie, the journalist began to interview her. “Overwhelmed by sitting through interviews with the writer, Jackie said she asked Erdely to be taken out of the article,” Post reporter Shapiro wrote. “She said Erdely refused, and Jackie was told the article would go forward regardless. Jackie said she finally relented and agreed to participate on the condition that she be able to fact-check her parts in the story, which she said Erdely agreed to.”

The New York Times had a different version of the interaction between Jackie and Erdely. According to the Times, Jackie insisted that the accused rapists not be contacted. If they were, she would not cooperate with the story. Will Dana, Rolling Stone’s managing editor, went along with that demand. He wrote in the magazine, “because of the sensitive nature of Jackie’s story, we decided to honor her request not to contact the man who she claimed orchestrated the attack on her nor any of the men who she claimed participated in the attack for fear of retaliation against her. … We should have not made this agreement with Jackie and we should have worked harder to convince her that the truth would have been better served by getting the other side of the story.”

That was a fatal error, one that has cast doubt on a story that seemed to have been published with good intentions. An important part of any reporter’s job is to try to get the other side. It can be a miserable task. The other side may be lying, evasive, hiding, defensive or even threatening. Or the other side may have a different version that might be true or give the story another slant. If reporters don’t try to get all sides, they’ll never know.

One day, we may know more about what happened at the University of Virginia. Investigations, lawsuits and persistent journalists will probably make sure of that.

But what won’t be settled is how journalists should approach rape victims and write about them as we enter a time when their stories are no longer automatically dismissed.

These are ordinary people who normally are not in the news and who may never have encountered a reporter. A practiced reporter knows how to get them to talk, how to use the tricks of the journalism trade.

Smile. Look understanding. Be friendly. Or, if you sense weakness, be intimidating. Explain to them that they’ll help others by telling their stories. Or that it’s their chance to get their side out to a skeptical world, to clear their name. Appeal to their vanity, to their desire for even a brief whirl at celebrity.

But what we don’t do is warn these innocents of how dangerous it can be to talk to us.

We don’t tell them that their lives may never be the same. Or that they could be held up to public ridicule. Families could be embarrassed. Someone could take revenge. We rarely, if ever, ask: “Are you sure you want to help me on this story? I’ll appreciate it if you do, but I’ll understand if you won’t.”

I should have told the veterans that even though I would disguise their names, seeing my column in print could be painful. It’s not like sharing your story in a support group. It’s your story as filtered by a writer and seen by many people. If the vets had heard that, they might have decided not to talk to me. And I would have had to figure out another way to get the story.

What I’m suggesting is a journalistic version of the Miranda warning cops are supposed to give those being arrested: “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you. …”

In her column Tuesday in the Los Angeles Times, Sandy Banks made an eloquent case for rape victims going public, but accompanied it with such a warning: “Today’s young women may have to be willing to face the equivalent of my generation’s police dogs and fire hoses: to endure humiliation by having personal lives exposed, to risk retaliation by challenging forces they once feared, to be willing to put a face and a name to a very ugly subject.”

In the future, more women will take their stories of rape out of hiding and share them with many people, a great public service. But journalists should warn the rape victims of the dangerous step they are taking and not exploit them for the sake of a sensational story.


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