A reaction to the Rolling Stone fiasco

Yesterday, Rolling Stone published the report of the result of an investigation about a story they had published earlier this year entitled “A Rape On Campus” by Sabrina Erdely. The story explained in detail how a University of Virginia student, Jackie, was gang raped in a fraternity house and how authorities neglected to remedy the situation.

A few days after the original story was published, reporters from other news organizations began to question its legitimacy. In an interview with Slate, Erdely evaded the question of whether or not she had talked to the alleged rapist. Later on, The Washington Post reported there was no event at the Phi Kappa Psi house on the night that Jackie claimed she was raped at a date party. When Jackie finally did release her attacker’s name to close friends and supporters, they determined he was not a member of Phi Kappa Psi, nor did other details of his description match with her accounts. Shortly thereafter, Rolling Stone removed the article and issued a statement.

Let me first say that I was deeply saddened by this whole situation. I have been following this story’s development closely from day one. Rolling Stone has been one of my favorite magazines since I was in middle school. As a music lover and a bit of a “crazy liberal” (I feel it’s important as a journalist to recognize my biases in the hopes that I can consciously make an effort to keep them out of my reporting) I have always been inspired by Rolling Stone. When I was younger, I wanted to be a journalism major so I could write for them. I am incredibly disappointed in the organization and their numerous, blatant oversights in reporting, editing and fact checking.

As I read through the report, several instances of “journalistic malpractice” really stuck out to me. Perhaps the most shocking was that Erdely did not first prove the existence of the rapist, nor try to reach him for comment. Erdely is an incredibly seasoned investigative reporter whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, GQ, Mother Jones, Glamour,  and Men’s Health who had the experience to raise a red flag.

As the Slate article put it:

“She must know the basic rules of reporting a story like this: You try very, very hard to reach anyone you’re accusing of something. You use any method you can think of, including the jerk reporter move of making a surprise, in-person confrontation. (Sarah Koenig, the host of the Serial podcast, provides a good example of reporter due diligence.) You try especially hard if you are writing about something as serious as a gang rape accusation. Sometimes, what results is a more layered version of the truth. Sometimes, the answer you get makes the accused seem even guiltier (e.g., Bill Cosby, asserting through a lawyer, that all the dozens of accusations against him are “fabricated”).”

Sometimes as reporters we are so caught up in ensuring the cooperation of our sources that we treat them too cautiously. Erdely said that she attempted to get the name from the victim, but Jackie seemed so distraught that the reporter dropped it. As the cliche saying goes, “If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out.” Erdely did not check it out and it came back to bite her.

A reporter has to be extremely diligent on his or her fact checking of any story, but especially one this controversial. When Erdely began to have doubts about the legitimacy of her source, she should have taken a step back and possibly pulled it altogether.

The report says, “Erdely’s reporting led her to other, adjudicated cases of rape at the university that could have illustrated her narrative, although none was as shocking and dramatic as Jackie’s.”

We reach a bit of a journalistic crossroads here and I think it’s the root of a lot of mistrust in journalistic institutions.

As an industry, we are prone to find the most extreme example to illustrate our point because we want to make a huge impact. With the same token, sometimes we forget to “check ourselves before we wreck ourselves.” These failures happen all too frequently: earlier this year, Brian Wilson was released from NBC after he fabricated details of his reporting in Iraq and New Orleans to dramatize his point.

When we fail to report in a balanced and “true” fashion, we shadow the real issues. Sexual assault on college campuses is a very real problem and often times, survivors have a difficult time coming forward to report them.

The University of Virginia has not taken action on all reports of sexual assault in the past and frankly, they are a good target for this kind of investigation, according to the Rolling Stone Report. However, the public did not need Jackie’s sensational, dramatic tale in order to appreciate the gravity of the situation, especially if it wasn’t true in the first place.

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