What We Learnt from the Rolling Stone’s Rape Story

Published: 8 April 2015

Region: US, Worldwide

University_of_VirginiaThe consequences of publishing an article about an alleged gang rape at one of the university campuses in the US would have been a major per se. But the damage caused by publishing the false and now retracted story “A Rape on Campus” in the Rolling Stone, is even greater. A good thing is that the magazine, facing a controversy and criticism after the publication of the story in November 2014, asked one of the most prominent journalism schools – Columbia University, to review its reporting and editorial decisions.

Columbia University team concluded that the Rolling Stone failed to comply with basic journalism principles. Columbia University’s thorough report should serve as a reminder not only how to conduct a journalistic investigation, but how to report on gender, sexual violence and other sensitive topics and community groups.

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,’ stated Columbia University in its report.

Rolling_Stone‘Jackie’ – a pseudonym for a survivor of alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia campus, has told her story, but the Rolling Stone’s reporter Sabrina Erdely didn’t independently verify the facts and events. She didn’t talk to the accused fraternity where the alleged crime happened, and she didn’t talk to Jackie’s friends quoted in the article itself.

The explanation offered by Erdely and the editors is that they have been ‘too accommodating towards Jackie’. ‘Ultimately, we were too deferential to our rape victim; we honoured too many of her requests in our reporting. We should have been much tougher, and in not doing that, we maybe did her a disservice,’ said one of the Rolling Stone’s editors Sean Woods.

‘Social scientists, psychologists and trauma specialists who support rape survivors have impressed upon journalists the need to respect the autonomy of victims, to avoid re-traumatizing them and to understand that rape survivors are as reliable in their testimony as other crime victims,’ says Columbia University in its report adding that these insights clearly influenced the Rolling Stone.

It is important to be sensitive while interviewing survivors of rape crime and members of any vulnerable group. But journalism ethics and standards should not be forgotten while following the guidelines on how to report on sensitive topics and marginalised groups.

A professor of journalism at New York University, Jay Rosen, thinks that the problem started at the beginning, when ‘the Rolling Stone settle on a narrative – indifference to the campus rape – and go off in search of a story that would work just right for that narrative’.

‘The report blasted the magazine for failing to engage in “basic, even routine journalistic practice” to verify the veracity of the story. This only amplified the finger pointing of those who believe the issue of college rape is an overhyped fallacy or an ideological instrument, and the hand-wringing among activists who fear real damage to a real issue,’ reports the New York Times. Amid claims such as last year’s National Review article “The Rape Epidemic is a Fiction” and Fox TV’s “there is a war happening on boys on these college campuses,” the New York Times columnist examines the effect the Rolling Stone story may have on sexual assault survivors and their willingness to come forward.