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Rolling Stone Gang Rape Article was “Journalistic Failure”

Rolling Stone Gang Rape Article was “Journalistic Failure”

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.

It’s brutal. And deserved:

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.


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Bitterlyclinging | April 6, 2015 at 8:16 am

“Its not the facts that matter, its the narrative that counts” Spatial positioning and orientation challenged Eleanor Holmes Norton, DC’s Democratic delegate to the House of Representatives, regarding the supposed “Hands Up Dont Shoot!” execution style slaying of Mike Brown in Ferguson, MO,
Doesnt matter to the Dems whether it was Brown, Trayvon, Jackie Vs the Old Boy descendants of the landed slaveowners at UVA, or Memories Pizza, that’s the way Libs see the world, Us agin’ the Man, and no amount of Prozac, Zyprexa, or transsphenoidal surgery will correct it.

    DevilsPrinciple in reply to Bitterlyclinging. | April 6, 2015 at 8:45 am

    This same narrative you describe also goes for the current RFRA debacle which I think most of us can concur is the attempt to subjugate one party’s rights to another.

    In the case of Rolling Stone, I hope they get sued out of business.
    As for Erdely, she should never be allowed to be a journalist again.

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.

The first two outlets to crash the party with doubt and publish stories highlighting inconsistencies in Jackie’s story were Richard Bradley’s Shots in the Dark (Nov. 24th) and Robby Soave at Reason (Nov. 25th). They questioned Erdely’s diligence in chasing down her leads, and then other outlets like Slate (Nov. 27th) and WaPo (Nov. 28th) joined in … and things began to unravel.

“UVA President Teresa Sullivan wasn’t impressed…”

She ALSO wasn’t even slightly CONTRITE for her role in this travesty.

She signed on full-tilt in the feminist mob scene immediately after the story was published.

She immediately knee-jerked in the “they’re guilty…BURN THEM”…direction WRT the frat named in the rape fabulism. Not just them, IIRC, but “Greek” organizations generally.

Which is really without legal support. IOW, she violated people’s rights.

Maybe there’s one in a statement of hers that Amy didn’t include, but she never mentioned the frat in her huffering and puffering about how Rolling Stone “done them wrong”, and she never mentions they were falsely accused. She’s the victim…with the UVa.

And it just ain’t so.

There is a well-known phenomenon involving the news. If you read a story involving a subject you know well, you find it ridiculous. I’ve actually stood next to the reporter at a public event, and wondered if we were at the same place when I read his story later. Where we have personal knowledge, we find the news untrustworthy.

But then, we turn the page and read story after story about events and people and places we know little about, and believe them to be accurate.

Why? Ever?

– –

Erdely has a long history of fraud and unverifiable stories. Her work, above anyone else’, required confirmation. But they did not care. Because they knew it was phony and ran with it anyway – it fit the “rape culture” narrative.

It appears unlikely that Sabrina will be fired, but if she is, there’s a journo-list job waiting for her at CBS, NBC, or MSNBC. She can have her pick of the litter.

Henry Hawkins | April 6, 2015 at 9:17 am

The UVa rape story came to leftist media (Rolling Stone) with the desired narrative already in perfect form. Being narrative driven, there was no reason for Erdely to ask questions or verify claims, working, as she and her ilk do, from a place of profound bias.

If the story came to RS as a gang rape by primarily black male students, for example, Erdely, et al, would have worked diligently to somehow minimize black participation and locate white perpetrators to make them the focus. They would have fine-tuned the story into ‘evidence’ of their desired narrative. Another example might be Erdely finding out the victim had reported being raped, I dunno, eight times in three years, indicating a probable dishonest victim. She would likely have worked diligently to bury that little detail so it couldn’t cast doubt and alter the desired narrative.

But no, the UVa rape story came to her already in perfect shape, needing no spin, no massaging, and no interment of inconvenient facts, hence, she asked nothing and looked into nothing. Fake but true, right?

    Ragspierre in reply to Henry Hawkins. | April 6, 2015 at 11:19 am


    “Keep flogging that unicorn, Eugenia. It’ll be fine…it’s only PLAYING dead.”

      Henry Hawkins in reply to Ragspierre. | April 6, 2015 at 1:00 pm

      I’ve reported you to PETA for rhetorically describing an instance of animal cruelty. Expect a call soon.

        Ragspierre in reply to Henry Hawkins. | April 6, 2015 at 1:31 pm

        Can you be cruel to a dead animal…that’s imaginary…???

        (This is deep, deep philosophy. Ergo, none of us can possibly deal with it. Kinda like things that are false, but accurate. Just trust me…)

          Henry Hawkins in reply to Ragspierre. | April 6, 2015 at 3:17 pm

          “Can you be cruel to a dead animal…that’s imaginary…???”

          Well, you and I would say no, of course, but I reported you to PETA, not the Society For Logic And Reason. They were offended by the imagery, you see. Deeply offended. Funny thing… while I was standing at the PETA lobby counter, I pulled a leprechaun out of my pocket, grabbed him by the ankles, and beat his head bloody on the counter till he was dead. You should have seen their faces!

It provided a wide variety of institutions and organizations an opportunity fail in broad daylight, under bright shining lights, and in full view of any non-comatose human being – print journalism; electronic media; higher ed academics, administrators, and their little-sheep student bodies; feminists; government; police; legal – and they all did.

Home of the free, land of the brave.

Culture of corruption———-never let the truth or facts get in the way of the agenda / narrative, and of course there are no consequences, even if we get caught in our bald faced lies. Is rolling stone just another department of the 0 administration ?

Erdely didn’t have the grace to apologize to the fraternity directly, despite the fact that she went on television in November and said that the fraternity had engaged in an annual, ritualized gang rape.

Sabrina Erdely skates. Just incredible.

Of course they didn’t link this common journalistic malpractice to the “hands up don’t shoot”, gentle giant, or Saint Skittles examples of the same biased reporting.

Self awareness is not one of journalisms strong points.

This is bigger than JournoLism. This represents another highly public failure of the social complex, in which JournoLists are the loudspeakers. Don’t bear false witness…

That said, it represents positive progress for individual dignity.

The fraternity has just announced plans to sue Rolling Stone:

The real victims are men who are and were falsely accused.

Notice that NO ONE contacted a men’s rights group for their take.

Notice very few started to talk about how false allegations happen, what kind of women do them, and what their motivations are.

It’s all about sexual assault victims – who are tertiary victims of this at worst.

It is my understanding the apology was given to AP. That was my first laugh. Then Columbia critiques the piece and that made me laugh harder. Columbia is where they teach this stuff and crank out the cranks. Columbia’s advice is simple: be more clever when lying.

All this from an institution that says conservative bloggers are not journalists. I would say that most conservative bloggers stories are better sourced than the biggest narrative that is placed on the front page, above the fold of the New York Slimes and Washington Compost.