A rape on campus: What did Rolling Stone do right and what did they do wrong

Image courtesy of thezombies.net
Image courtesy of thezombies.net

In its December 2014 issue, Rolling Stone published a story by Sabrina Erdely titled “A Rape on Campus.” The article described an account of a gang rape of a female University of Virginia student by seven members of the UVA chapter of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity. The woman, named only Jackie by Erdely, said she had been lured to a party at the UVA campus fraternity house and there was gang raped as part of a fraternity pledge ceremony. The article described in horrific detail the brutality of the rape, how Jackie fled the house, and an indifferent response by the UVA administration to her ordeal.

Doubts about the truth of the article began to be raised by multiple media outlets. The Washington Post, and other newspapers, began to question the truth of victim’s account in early December. Police investigations have concluded that there was no evidence of a gang rape having taken place,  and that there was no substance to support the account in the article.

Rolling Stone retracted the article on April 5th, 2015, and published a report by the Columbia University School of Journalism which details the multiple failures of fundamental journalistic practice committed by Rolling Stone in the publication of the article.

Erdely and Rolling Stone did very little that could be described as correct. Erdely apparently was concerned to not re-traumatize Jackie, which is standard journalistic practice.  Erdely did attempt to corroborate (unsuccessfully) Jackie’s account with Jackie’s mother. And Erdely also did email some questions to Phi Kappa Psi about the story and she also did some interviews with school administrators. The Columbia report states that Erdely and Rolling Stone  did not deliberately fabricate the story. Minimally, these can be cited as things that were done right because they are to be expected as a matter of course for journalists.

Erdely and Rolling Stone failed to verify all of the most fundamental facts relevant to Jackie’s claims. First, Erdely failed to do basic reporting correctly – without any interviews of the “perpetrators” and without asking Jackie, or her friends, any tough questions it is not surprising that the story turned out to be unsubstantiated given its sensational nature. Second, there was no proper editorial oversight of Erdely. It was as though Erdely was given free reign to produce whatever she wanted and her editors just accepted it. Third, there was a complete failure of fact checking by both Erdely and her editors – for example, failing to verify whether there had been a party at the fraternity house that night.  Given these failings it seems that Erdely and her editors wanted a good story and they didn’t let any facts get in the way.

A future story on the subject of rape on college campuses could be done by simply following standard journalistic practice. Fundamental to the accuracy of such a story would be thorough fact checking as to times, locations, and persons. Corroborating witness accounts of details about places and other facts that are not especially difficult to ascertain are critical to stories that involve both multiple persons and extreme crimes like gang-rape. Close editorial supervision of the reporter on stories that involve claims of serious crime is especially important. Insisting on interviewing the accused rapists would, one would think, be a minimal requirement before publication. So little was done right in the Rolling Stone UVA story that virtually any aspect of sound journalistic practice can be cited as what should be done right in a future story. Maybe it is better to say simply that whatever was done in Erdely’s story should not be done in the future. The whole episode can serve as a guide to how not to do journalism.

Given the unapologetic tone of comments from Rolling Stone staff cited by the Columbia report that, incredibly, the staff didn’t think the magazine needed to change any of its practices, it seems as if Rolling Stone just doesn’t get it. And because Erdely, a supposedly serious journalist, failed to follow even minimal standards of professional practice it is reasonable to wonder if she and her magazine aren’t journalists at all but rather just printers of, in effect, trashy gossip.

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