How the Washington Post Got Rape Reporting Right

Protestors carry signs and chant slogans as they march along University Avenue on The Corner, a popular nighttime destination with bars and restaurants adjacent to the University of Virginia, Saturday night, Nov. 22, 2014, in Charlottesville, Va. The protest, the most well-attended of several throughout the day, was in response to the university's reaction to an alleged sexual assault of a student revealed in a recent Rolling Stone article. (AP Photo/The Daily Progress, Ryan M. Kelly)
Photo: Ryan M. Kelly/AP Photo/The Daily Progress

Last month, the Washington Post made what was, for a newspaper anyway, an unusual decision: They would publish Barbara Bowman’s rape allegations against Bill Cosby in a first-person essay, despite the fact that Bowman had never pressed chargesWhen reporters outside the paper started asking about their decision, executive editor Marty Baron drafted a long statement defending their choice.

The investigation of sexual abuse by priests within the Catholic Church was based on many allegations in which no criminal charges or lawsuits had been filed,” he wrote. “In fact, that was a major point of the investigation: How society, including its legal system, served to suppress disclosure of a pattern of abuse.”

In the end, Baron’s statement was never published (a spokesperson for the Post shared it with me when I asked them about it last week). Three days after Bowman’s piece appeared, another woman named Joan Tarshis said Cosby assaulted her in 1969. The next day, another woman, Linda Joy Traitz, said Cosby tried to assault her. Then model Janice Dickinson said Cosby raped her. Two days later, three more women stepped forward. Then three more. By the time the Washington Post published its own deeply reported investigation into the claim — which included multiple accounts of assault and multiple denials from Cosby’s legal team — no one could reasonably doubt their decision to publish Bowman’s story.

Baron’s defense also made clear the lengths the Washington Post went to in order to uphold traditional journalistic standards. They reached out to Cosby multiple times, he wrote, and were publishing the essay as a first-person opinion essay from a woman who’d been accusing Cosby in the press for years — not as reported fact. But the fact that Baron wrote the memo at all underscores how unusual the decision was. With a few high-profile exceptions, newspapers don’t usually publish such serious accusations without a police report, lawsuit, or corroboration of some kind. Historically, this standard has made reporting rapes particularly tricky for journalists, since many victims of rape never go to the police. Even when they do speak up, reporters often point to the fact that they can’t confirm the allegations as an excuse to avoid inconvenient truths about well-liked men. “I didn’t want to print allegations that I couldn’t confirm independently,” Cosby biographer Mark Whitaker told BuzzFeed, when asked why there was no mention in his 500-page book of the assault claims. Ta-Nehisi Coates later admitted that he, too, was among journalists who decided the lack of hard evidence was a good enough reason to look the other way.

They’re not alone in their level of caution. It can take years of serial offenses for a publication to go to print with accusations without a lawsuit. Take the Catholic Church scandal: The Boston Globe blew open the story in 2001, but evidence of sexual abuse by its priests had been surfacing since the early 1980s. When Bowman’s op-ed ran, it was with the headline “Bill Cosby raped me. Why did it take 30 years for anyone to believe my story?”

That newspapers are changing how they handle sensitive allegations is not a coincidence. The internet has created more space for women to tell their own stories, with websites like xoJane now regularly publishing stories by women who write anonymously and candidly about their own experiences. These first-person testimonials are in part a by-product of decades of victim advocacy work by groups like the Rape Abuse and Incest National Network, which has counseled sexual-assault survivors since the mid-1990s. These advocates have argued that while it’s up to the courts to decide whether an alleged rapist is guilty of a crime, the rest of us should give victims the benefit of the doubt. 

That’s the principle Rolling Stone reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely seemed to apply to Jackie, the woman at the center of her story on a brutal gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity party. But what’s been made clear in the weeks since the story’s publication is that she took the idea too far, forgoing journalistic best practices in the interest of protecting her source — and the magazine is paying dearly for it.

The story at the heart of Erdely’s 9,000-word investigation began to fall apart a week after it was first published when reporters at the Washington Post and Slate began asking a simple, but important question: Had Rolling Stone reached out to any of the accused rapists? The magazine, Erdely and her editor said, had not, because they were trying to be sensitive to a request Jackie made not to contact them.

By the end of the week, the Washington Post had reported that some of Jackie’s friends and activists at the University of Virginia were no longer sure what to believe. The fraternity said there had been no social function on the night of the alleged attack, and that none of its brothers worked as a lifeguard in 2012. When the Post contacted the main assailant in the piece, named “Drew,” he said he belonged to another fraternity and didn’t know Jackie.

None of this means that Jackie’s story is a complete fabrication — trauma victims commonly have trouble remembering the details of their assaults — and a friend who saw Jackie on the night of the attack told the Post that she was visibly shaken and said that she had been forced to perform oral sex on a group of men.

What is so unsettling about the magazine’s now obvious journalistic failure is that it was likely done with good intentions. Erdely, who has written about plenty of victims in her role as an investigative reporter, was trying to be sensitive to her subject’s needs. If Rolling Stone’s epic failure has any lesson, it’s that — as Hanna Rosin and others have argued — protecting vulnerable subjects means not just being sensitive to their privacy and trauma; it also means getting the story right. Otherwise, a reporter leaves them open to the kind of credibility attacks critics are now leveling at Jackie. But this doesn’t mean journalists should bury sensitive material. These stories still need to be told, and as Baron’s decision to publish the rape allegations against Cosby show, not only is it possible to bring serious accusations to light responsibly, it’s the fundamental task of good journalism. 

How the Washington Post Got Rape Reporting Right