An interactive view of Webster University's campus.
Rolling Stone and journalist integrity
This editorial is the view of the editorial board, which is comprised of nine editors.
On Nov. 28, 2014, Rolling Stone magazine published “A Rape on Campus” by Sabrina Rubin Erdely, an article that investigated the alleged gang rape of University of Virginia (UVA) junior, “Jackie,” by seven members of Phi Kappa Psi on Sep. 28, 2012. Five months of controversy later, and after criticism from The Washington Post and other news outlets, the magazine retracted the article and published a formal apology alongside a report by The Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
Columbia’s report debunked the article’s multiple accusations and found that its errors “encompassed reporting, editing, editorial supervision and fact-checking.” But even more harmful than their mistakes in basic journalism, Rolling Stone increased the nation’s skepticism of journalists, as well as the reliability of rape survivor accounts.
When the Rolling Stone paired unreliable reporting with an issue as serious as rape, the result was exactly the opposite of what they planned to achieve. Originally intended as an investigation of how colleges deal with sexual violence, the article eventually fixated on Jackie’s allegations.
Erdely specifically contacted a UVA staff member about sexual assault cases because she wanted to write a piece demonstrating the indifference she believed college administrations showed toward student cases. When Erdely learned of Jackie’s story, she immersed herself in the victim’s experience and did not find supporting evidence from other sources. Rolling Stone’s editors published the story without knowing the name of the man who lured Jackie to the site of her alleged rape—without even verifying his existence. As a result, both the UVA administration and fraternity were wrongly represented. Unsurprisingly, USA Today recently reported the fraternity has filed to sue.
Facts should never be overlooked in the name of a good lead.
Erdely not only asked for a shocking rape case—she reported and wrote the story to fit her preconceived notions of the situation. Columbia’s report found that while Erdely kept Jackie, her primary source, anonymous, she did not interview any of Jackie’s friends or the fraternity members. She did not even confront the fraternity officials with specific accusations. The report found contradictions in Jackie’s previous accounts, no evidence of the event happening at the fraternity as of yet and could not confirm the existence of many of the people in her story. The local police department has since closed Jackie’s case, concluding there was no basis for her claims.
We agree with the Columbia School of Journalism that “Journalistic practice—and basic fairness—require that if a reporter intends to publish derogatory information about anyone, he or she should seek that person’s side of the story.” In a case of such extreme malpractice, it is troubling that a professional magazine like Rolling Stone did not fire any of the reporters or editors involved. We think the magazine’s choice not to enforce consequences is unjust, and sets a bad example for journalistic integrity.
“A Rape on Campus” became a narrow view of a much more complex issue, and now its complexity has been obscured by the article’s mistakes. A study published by Sage Press found that of the 136 rape cases reported over a decade, only eight were false. Similar studies have found the rate of false cases ranges from two to 10 percent. Yet Rolling Stone’s article has brought more attention to a false claim than to the majority of proven cases constantly featured in the news—and perhaps have discouraged real victims from coming forward.
Rolling Stone Managing Editor Will Dana sees it differently. “In the long term,” Dana said, “I don’t think people are going to look back at this story and say, ‘This is why women are not coming forward.’”
But we fear that is exactly the response the article could receive.
The Guardian reported that “men who join fraternities are three times more likely to rape, that women in sororities are 74 percent more likely to experience rape than other college women, and that one in five women will be sexually assaulted in four years away at school,” based on the findings of multiple studies. But thanks to Rolling Stone falsely accusing Phi Kappa Psi, sexual assault and other crimes committed by fraternity members may now be harder to prove.
Our society still blames victims, sometimes even after their rapists are proven guilty. A psychological study conducted by the University of Georgia found when alcohol is involved, people are more likely to hold the rapist less responsible if he was under the influence, but blame the victim if she were intoxicated during the rape.
And our society still distrusts the media, especially after competition has increased the desire for more and more shocking stories. A 2004 Chronicle of Higher Education poll found just 10 percent of Americans had confidence in the media.
Rolling Stone’s article has done nothing but perpetuate these problems.
Facts should never be overlooked in the name of a good lead. The Journal sees the Rolling Stone’s mistake as a warning in the form of a lesson—one that we can learn from. Our staff is committed to help improve journalism’s reputation and interviewees’ trust by reporting responsibly and publishing stories that uphold the integrity of our sources.