Belief and disbelief: Rolling Stone cuts journalistic corners, and vulnerable assault victims are likely to bear the brunt of the impact

December 11, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 11, 2014

I don’t know exactly what went wrong with the reporting and editing of “A Rape on Campus,” Rolling Stone’s attention-grabbing Nov. 19 feature story about an alleged sexual assault at a University of Virginia fraternity house.

We do know that there are serious questions about the anecdote at the heart of Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s feature. The gang rape that she described in detail may not have happened at the Phi Kappa Psi house, or it may not have involved a member of Phi Kappa Psi. Or perhaps it never took place at all. We still don’t know for sure.

But for weeks, Rolling Stone asserted that it had rigorously fact-checked the account of Jackie, the student (her last name did not appear in the story) who claimed to have been brutally gang-raped in the fall of 2012, when she was a freshman.

That changed on Friday, when, after copious evidence emerged that the publication had seriously failed to verify some aspects of the feature, the magazine acknowledged that the story had serious issues. Now, Rolling Stone says that it will re-investigate the article in order to give readers a full understanding of what happened on the evening in question.

One hopes that the magazine will also examine why it suffered a serious journalistic breach, much as The Washington Post did in 1981 after its Pulitzer Prize–winning story about an 8-year-old heroin addict turned out to be invented from whole cloth and as The New York Times did when it discovered that one of its reporters had repeatedly produced stories that were riddled with inventions and plagiarism.

I’m no longer an active journalist, although I one day may be again. But I take the profession of reporting seriously, and it pains me to see a story bungled as badly as Rolling Stone appears to have done.

The worst part about this mess is that the people who will be harmed most by it are likely those who are most vulnerable — people who have been sexually assaulted. Traditionally, rape victims have been reluctant to report assaults. A 2007 survey of nearly 5,500 female students at two large public universities found that nearly one in five women had experienced some form of attempted or completed sexual assault or coercion since entering college. But only four percent of the assaults were reported to legal authorities.

There were many reasons for the lack of formal reporting, the study found. Chief among them:

• lacking proof that the incident occurred (about half of the incidents occurred while the victim was incapacitated due to alcohol or drug consumption, not all of which was voluntary);

• fearing retaliation by the perpetrator (this was the reason why Jackie asked Rolling Stone not to contact her alleged assailants);

• fearing hostile treatment by authorities;

• not knowing whether the authorities would consider the incident to be serious enough;

• not knowing how to report the incident; and

• wanting to keep relatives and acquaintances from learning about the incident.

Survivors of alleged sexual assault are usually not named in the media without their permission. But the Rolling Stone brouhaha has handed skeptics of sexual assault statistics, and of rape victims in general, license to behave badly. One self-proclaimed journalist took it upon himself to publish the full name of the student at the center of Erdely’s story. The same individual also tweeted, on Sunday, “I’m giving Jackie until later tonight to tell the truth and then I’m going to start revealing everything about her past.”

Funny, I don’t remember any of my graduate school professors instructing us about when it’s permissible to resort to extortionary tactics. Perhaps that’s because it’s been more than a decade since I graduated from journalism school.

We may yet learn that Jackie in fact was raped, and maybe even raped by multiple men, even though some of the incidental details related by Rolling Stone — the name of the fraternity where it happened, or the date of the assault, or the job held by one of the alleged rapists — turn out to be incorrect. But damage has already been done. Rolling Stone has given a gift to rape apologists, as Katie Klabusich wrote on Monday.

I hope that the next time a reporter or an editor is working on a complicated and important story, she or he will think back to this fiasco and remember what happened when Rolling Stone decided to cut corners and forsake key journalistic principles. When mistakes are made, people — lots of people — can get hurt. And we have yet to learn, and we likely may never know, the full extent of the fallout from this mess.

Steve Contorno, a reporter for the Tampa Bay Times and Politifact, tweeted on Friday, “The only thing worse than no journalism is bad journalism.”

Exactly so.

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