An extremely cringe worthy journalism failure has just happened and I can’t help but wonder how one of the most notable culture and music publications will recover. If you’re a journalist, a college student, a sexual assault survivor, a professor, a college administrator—basically any participating member of society—you’ve probably heard about the epic misstep made by Rolling Stone’s editorial team in the reporting of a University of Virginia campus rape (the article has since been retracted).
“A Rape on Campus” was published in November 2014 and within weeks major news outlets like The Washington Post were heavily and publicly questioning the validity of Rolling Stone’s reporting. It was obvious not all characters in the story were equally represented. The presence of pseudonyms was concerning. And, to top it off, sources who were never reached for comment by the writer publicly disputed facts of the story. From there, what at publication time seemed to be a ground-breaking, critical story addressing campus rape culture, began to unravel. Here’s a detailed timeline of events.
Shortly before Christmas 2014, Rolling Stone enlisted the help of The Columbia School of Journalism to investigate the facts of their story using the writer’s notes, call logs, emails and contacts. The magazine published Columbia’s lengthy report last week. The report concluded a number of oversights and failures at every level of the editorial team—writer, editors and fact-checkers. It also promptly stated Rolling Stone’s failure was avoidable.
A few groups will undeniably suffer setbacks from this scandal: survivors of rape and sexual assault and the journalists who report on these situations. And not only does it disgrace those groups, it jeopardizes the reputations of the university, the fraternity against which hasty and detailed allegations were made and a number of sources to which the subject of the story inaccurately attributed face-damaging comments.
Now, because of the subject’s seemingly fabricated details, it’s possible rape and sexual assault survivors will be less likely to speak up for fear they won’t be trusted. This is a true atrocity—a giant leap backward after years of legislation and procedural changes have equipped colleges with the tools to work toward providing a supportive and healing community for survivors.
“It would be unfortunate if Rolling Stone’s failure were to deter journalists from taking on high-risk investigations of rape in which powerful individuals or institutions may wish to avoid scrutiny but where the facts may be underdeveloped. There is clearly a need for a more considered understanding and debate among journalists and others about the best practices for reporting on rape survivors, as well as on sexual assault allegations that have not been adjudicated.” – From The Columbia School of Journalism’s report
The report makes clear a journalistic truism. It’s imperative to allow all parties a fair say in an effort to uncover the truth, not to protect a source so definitively as to avoid fact-checking critical elements of a story.
One of the few positives to come out of this scandal, however, is the swift watchdog action taken by The Washington Post. It should be 100 percent the intention of journalists to be truthful in their reporting but, like any other aspect of life, human error sometimes trumps those intentions. Then, it’s up to others in the industry to blow the whistle.
At the end of the report, Columbia provided a list of areas that “should be the subject of continuing deliberation among journalists” when reporting on sexual assault and rape: Balancing sensitivity to the victims and the demands of verification; Corroborating survivor accounts; Holding institutions to account.
I’ll take this space to represent the minority opinion and be thankful for the lesson learned—from both an audience’s and journalist’s perspective. Rape and sexual assault stories are no different from any other: Fact-checking and source contact is an absolute necessity. To sloppily contact sources for comment who play such an integral part in a story, and whose reputations are very much on the line, is unacceptable. If these decisions were made to protect the main source of the story from her alleged attacker (as Rolling Stone stated they were) then maybe it wasn’t the right story to tell.