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Editorial: Failure at Rolling Stone

The Rolling Stone article, “A Rape on Campus,” details a harrowing story of gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity party. Published last month, the article is an indictment of U.Va. and its party culture.

The center of the 9,000-word piece is a young woman named Jackie; it provides a graphic and sickening story of what she says happened on campus one night in 2012. The article outlines the impact of the alleged attack on Jackie and the response of the university. It depicts her friends as indifferent to her story; two male friends are portrayed as more worried about their own chances to pledge a fraternity than her well-being.

In the weeks since the article was published, a number of factual discrepancies have been identified by other news organizations, notably The Washington Post, which has been investigating the incident. Among other concerns: the accused fraternity said it held no social event on the night in question and the alleged attacker never worked at the pool where Jackie says she met him.

Most recently, the friends identified in the Rolling Stone piece have been interviewed by the Post; they take issue with significant details in the article, including whether they urged her to go to the police or get medical help.

The continuing controversy over this article obscures the very real problems of campus assault, binge drinking and predatory behavior. Instead of tackling the issues the Rolling Stone article sought to illuminate, the public conversation has been about the article and its shortcomings. The piece itself has become the issue, not campus assault.

Written by Sabrina Rubin Erdley, the article includes extensive reporting at U.Va. and around Charlottesville – she interviewed University President Teresa Sullivan, administrators, campus rape counselors, lawyers and others.

However, much of the controversy about the story relates to its core premise – the attack on Jackie.

The Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists, the leading source for advice on journalistic decision-making, urges reporters to “use heightened sensitivity” when dealing with victims of sex crimes.

Indeed, Rolling Stone Managing Editor Will Dana wrote in a note to readers appended to the story, “We decided to honor [Jackie’s] request not to contact the man she claimed orchestrated the attack on her nor any of the men she claimed participated in the attack for fear of retaliation against her.”

Given the seriousness of the allegations and the egregious nature of the alleged attack, that was a mistake. The SPJ ethics code also states that reporters should “diligently seek subjects of news coverage to allow them to respond to criticism or allegations of wrongdoing.”

Despite the extensive reporting Erdley did, the crucial part of “A Rape on Campus” is just a one-source story. Jackie’s version of the facts wasn’t corroborated, confirmed, tested or vetted. And that’s simply bad journalism.

After a maelstrom of criticism came its way, Rolling Stone threw Jackie under the bus: It said that once the inconsistencies in the story started to crop up, it concluded “that our trust in her was misplaced.”

Dana has since revised the note to readers, acknowledging there is a dispute about some of the facts raised by the Post’s reporting (matters that Rolling Stone really should have investigated itself before going to press). Dana addresses the agreement not to contact the alleged assaulters, stating, “We should have not made this agreement with Jackie and we should have worked harder to convince her that the truth would have been better served by getting the other side of the story.”

He added, “These mistakes are on Rolling Stone, not on Jackie.”

The problem is, a whole lot more is on Jackie now. A blogger has since outed her and posted her full identity with links to her social media presence. She apparently has become a target of online spew from low-lifes, being called a “liar” and worse.

“We apologize to anyone who was affected by the story and we will continue to investigate the events of that evening,” Dana concluded.

Essentially the magazine is saying it’s sorry.

Sorry is the right word.

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