As journalists, the truth is the only currency that we have.-Don Kaplan
Rolling Stone faced all the hot water after freelance writer Sabrina Rubin Erdely reported on an alleged gang rape of a woman named “Jackie,” who claims she was attacked by multiple members of a fraternity on the campus of the University of Virginia.
The New York Times reports that Rolling Stone has retracted the article after the release of a Columbia University School of Journalism report Sunday that claims the article was a failure at ever level.
Erdely released a statement saying:
“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 UVA community, and to any victims of sexual assault who may feel fearful as a result of my article.
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. Reporting on rape has unique challenges, but the journalist still has the responsibility to get it right. I hope that my mistakes in reporting this story do not silence the voices of victims that need to be heard.”
The responsibility of journalism has been a heavy cross to bear these days. Often in our fast-moving, “microwave” culture, many media outlets are battling to be the first ones to report a story and sometimes leave a trail of muddled details or untrue facts in their wake. And honestly, it’s not only the fault of quick tweets and story publishing that shows what irresponsible journalism looks like, it’s the journalists who lie. *cough* Brian Williams. (If you Google “lying journalist,” guess who’s name and photo shows up?)
We all cringed when Williams was caught in his lies about being in the military helicopter that got shot down by enemy fire in Iraq. Now we don’t trust him at all. And the same could be said for Erdely, who claims that because she was so endeared to the victim and wanted to maintain her privacy, she neglected to reach out to other parties from the story and just told “Jackie’s” side.
This is just irresponsible journalism, plainly put.
What’s worse is that, in December, Rolling Stone’s managing editor, Will Dana released a statement, taking full responsibility for the lack of fact-checking in their published article. Dana said, “Because of the sensitive nature of ‘Jackie’s’ story, we decided to honor her request not to contact the man who she claimed orchestrated the attack on her nor any of the men who she claimed participated in the attack for fear of retaliation against her.” That’s not a consideration when you have story to tell to the public truthfully.
Women already have a hard enough time reporting that they’ve been raped. Cases like this make circumstances worse for women who have been victimized by attackers. Unlike victims of any other crime, rape victims are often subject to ostracizing, disbelief and blame. Hostilities against the victim quickly gather steam and these hostilities are frequently supported by powerful (typically male-dominated) institutions such like schools.
In an interview, Jann S. Wenner, the publisher of Rolling Stone, acknowledged the piece’s flaws but said that it represented an isolated and unusual episode and that Erdely would continue to write for the magazine. The problems with the article, he claims, started with its source. He described her as “a really expert fabulist storyteller” who managed to manipulate the magazine’s journalism process. When asked to clarify, he said that he was not trying to blame “Jackie.” He said, “She [Erdely] dropped her journalistic training, scruples and rules and convinced Sean to do the same. There is this series of falling dominoes.”
It’s been reported that “Jackie” did not cooperate with the police and declined to be interviewed for the Columbia report. She also declined, through her lawyer, Palma Pustilnik, to be interviewed for this article. She is no longer in touch with some of the advocates who first brought her to the attention of Rolling Stone, according to Emily Renda, a rape survivor working on sexual assault issues at the University of Virginia.
In an interview, Dana said he had reached many of the same conclusions as the Columbia report in his own efforts to examine the article, but he disagreed with the report’s assertion that the magazine had staked its reputation on the word of one source. “We didn’t think through all the implications of the decisions that we made while reporting the story, and we never sort of allowed for the fact that maybe the story we were being told was not true,” he said. That was compounded by the fact that any reporting on any purported crime that has not been reported to the authorities is difficult, he said. “I think if you take a step back, our reputation rests on a lot more than this one story,” Dana continued.
Rolling Stone won’t always be known as the magazine that once made up a fake rape, but it’s going to be a long road in having the world forget about their irresponsibility. Hopefully this major fail won’t contribute to women being brave enough to report to the police when they’re sexually assaulted.