So much for that scorching take…
Last July, Rolling Stone reporter Sabrina Erdely went looking for a hot take on campus sexual assault. She reached out to a staff member at the University of Virginia for help, and after a series of conversations, found “Jackie.”
At first blush, “Jackie’s” sexual assault story was horrifying on every level, from the setting at a well-respected fraternity to the alleged do-nothing attitude of university officials. She had details, a vivid memory, and friends to back up her account.
Take level: scorching.
Interviews were conducted. A story was written—but not long after publication, outlets like Slate and the Washington Post crashed the party with doubt, publishing stories highlighting inconsistencies in Jackie’s story. They questioned Erdely’s diligence in chasing down her leads, and things began to unravel.
On December 4, Rolling Stone published a panicked disclaimer on their website that effectively retracted the magazine’s reporting on Jackie’s story.
Countertake level: molten.
After they scraped themselves off the newsroom floor, the higher-ups at Rolling Stone reached out to Columbia University’s journalism school, asking for a blow-by-blow on what went wrong and who was to blame.
Rolling Stone’s repudiation of the main narrative in “A Rape on Campus” is a story of journalistic failure that was avoidable. The failure encompassed reporting, editing, editorial supervision and fact-checking. The magazine set aside or rationalized as unnecessary essential practices of reporting that, if pursued, would likely have led the magazine’s editors to reconsider publishing Jackie’s narrative so prominently, if at all. The published story glossed over the gaps in the magazine’s reporting by using pseudonyms and by failing to state where important information had come from.
In late March, after a four-month investigation, the Charlottesville, Va., police department said that it had “exhausted all investigative leads” and had concluded, “There is no substantive basis to support the account alleged in the Rolling Stone article.”
The story’s blowup comes as another shock to journalism’s credibility amid head-swiveling change in the media industry. The particulars of Rolling Stone’s failure make clear the need for a revitalized consensus in newsrooms old and new about what best journalistic practices entail, at an operating-manual-level of detail.
The report itself is longer than the article that sparked the outrage. Flip through it and you’ll find evidence of confirmation bias, sloppy fact checking, and conscious decisions to “let things go” rather than exercise due diligence when it came to the more sordid details of Jackie’s story.
I highly recommend reading the whole thing—it’s an excellent case study in what can happen when a team of journalists allows itself to get carried away with the idea of a story, without pausing to confirm that that story—or in this case, the rapist himself—actually exists.
As for Erdely herself, she issued a canned apology that focuses more on her embarrassment, and not nearly enough on the pain she inflicted:
“The past few months, since my Rolling Stone article “A Rape on Campus” was first called into question, have been among the most painful of my life. Reading the Columbia account of the mistakes and misjudgments in my reporting was a brutal and humbling experience. I want to offer my deepest apologies: to Rolling Stone’s readers, to my Rolling Stone editors and colleagues, to the U.V.A. community, and to any victims of sexual assault who may feel fearful as a result of my article.
Painful for you? Last time I checked, no one accused you of rape, sanctioning rape, or ignoring rape.
Her apologies mean less than nothing. Apologies have no teeth. Anyone who is or was part of a large community community—especially a greek community—knows that scandals like this are forever. Lives and reputations have been ruined. But she’s sorry. I’m sure attorneys representing the fraternity she smeared will take that into consideration when they start calculating their fees.
She goes on to describe how she normally goes about writing sensitive stories—specifically, ones that haven’t been widely discredited (yet):
In writing each of these stories I must weigh my compassion against my journalistic duty to find the truth. However, in the case of Jackie and her account of her traumatic rape, I did not go far enough to verify her story. I allowed my concern for Jackie’s well-being, my fear of re-traumatizing her, and my confidence in her credibility to take the place of more questioning and more facts. These are mistakes I will not make again.
Sorry, Sabrina—the fact that you’re still framing this as “her traumatic rape” tanks this apology where it stands. The fact is that Erdely abandoned her journalistic duty to find the truth because to not do so would be to put her narrative in jeopardy.
No real journalist worth her salt would risk the kind of international humiliation currently being served up to Erdely for the sake of “compassion.” It’s an excuse. Stories involving rape are hard to write, but anyone writing them—as Erdely admits to having done—knows that going in. Similarly, sources for these stories are probably sensitive, likely traumatized, and almost always “imperfect” from a PR standpoint—something else anyone worth the title of “journalist” knows full well.
You either write the story, or you don’t write the story. Compassion comes with making the victim comfortable, and getting the story right. There’s no room for using “compassion” as an excuse to be sloppy—and I didn’t have to go to J-school to figure that one out.
UVA President Teresa Sullivan wasn’t impressed by any of it:
“Rolling Stone’s story, ‘A Rape on Campus,’ did nothing to combat sexual violence, and it damaged serious efforts to address the issue. Irresponsible journalism unjustly damaged the reputations of many innocent individuals and the University of Virginia. Rolling Stone falsely accused some University of Virginia students of heinous, criminal acts, and falsely depicted others as indifferent to the suffering of their classmate. The story portrayed university staff members as manipulative and callous toward victims of sexual assault. Such false depictions reinforce the reluctance sexual assault victims already feel about reporting their experience, lest they be doubted or ignored.”
So that’s it, at least for now. Rolling Stone has said that they will change their newsroom practices to avoid another circus, but no one responsible is being fired, apparently because being exposed as galloping fraudsters is punishment enough.
Erdely will be allowed to pick up the pieces and walk away from this; whether or not her victims will be able to do so is another question entirely—but likely not one Rolling Stone will ever be required to fully answer.DONATE
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