This week is a dark one in the history of journalism.
Last November, Rolling Stone magazine published “A Rape on Campus,” in which reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely gave an account of the alleged gang rape of a University of Virginia student, named “Jackie” for the purposes of the article, at a fraternity house. The article described this as part of an initiation rite for members of the fraternity.
The article was intended to position Jackie’s story as emblematic of a larger culture of rape and sexual harassment on college campuses across the nation.
Doubts about the veracity of the story quickly emerged, however. On Dec. 5, Rolling Stone released a hastily composed editor’s note on their website retracting the article, after Erdely (as well as journalists at The Washington Post) became aware of seeming contradictions in Jackie’s story.
In the ensuing fallout, the staff of Rolling Stone contacted Steve Coll, the Pulitzer Prize winning dean of the Columbia School of Journalism. Over the next few months, Coll assembled an independent team to assess the failures of Rolling Stone’s UVA reporting. The report, released Sunday on Rolling Stone’s website, is “a work of journalism about a failure of journalism,” and describes in detail how Rolling Stone’s staff failed in many ways and on a systematic level.
This was completely avoidable. The Columbia report documents in detail how the reporter, editors and fact-checkers failed in key ways, and the end of the piece lists several concrete recommendations for the improvement of journalistic practice at the magazine.
This needs to serve as a wake- up call not only to the staff members at Rolling Stone, but to all of the journalistic profession. Investigative reporting is a cornerstone of what we do, and we should pride ourselves in bringing the light of transparency to those who would harm the public. But when we print things recklessly, without knowing for sure whether they are true, we risk libeling entire bodies of people, as happened in this case.
Perhaps the greatest tragedy of this incident, among many, is the likely reinforcement of the myth that women routinely lie about rape and sexual assault.
In fact, social scientists analyzing crime records have put the rate of false rape allegations as low as two to eight percent. A backlash against those who come forward with these charges is an unjustified, but unfortunately likely result of the shoddy journalism Rolling Stone exhibited.
By printing this story in such a reckless manner, the cases of countless victims have been undermined in the public eye.
Those who work in journalism sometimes have a reputation of being “out to get people” solely for the purpose of getting a good story. While often these stereotypes are overblown, and stem from a lack of knowledge about how journalism works, incidents like the implosion of Rolling Stone’s UVA story show that this reputation can be earned as well.
If Rolling Stone, a prominent national magazine approaching its fiftieth anniversary, can succumb to this lack of professional integrity, then we must all be on the lookout.
We at The Pacific Index call on those in journalism, professionals and students alike, to reevaluate how they conduct their newsgathering. You can be sure that our staff will be discussing the results of the Columbia report so that we can better improve our standards and practices.
We must take our duties seriously, as we can cause serious damage when we do not.
This does not mean that we should shy away from hard-hitting investigative pieces, like the one the UVA story had the potential to be. Remember that journalism can be a powerful tool to protect the downtrodden from those who hold power in society.
But we also have a commitment to the truth, a duty not to mislead those who would put their faith in us when we give them the news.
Survivors of rape and sexual assault deserve better. Those who would be falsely maligned by the media deserve better, too. All of us deserve better.