In November, Rolling Stone magazine published ‘A Rape on Campus,’ about an alleged sexual assault at a University of Virginia fraternity party. It’s an important breakthrough for journalism — not for its success, but its failure.
A month later, Rolling Stone retracted the story due to sharp inaccuracies and reliance on a singular source known just as “Jackie.” While this certainly hurts the credibility of Rolling Stone and those involved in the story, as well as possibly increasing the hesitancy women face in reporting these types of crimes, this entire debacle teaches us some necessary lessons.
The most obvious one lies in the responsibility of journalists. The Columbia School of Journalism published an excellent investigative report — requested by Rolling Stone itself — to find out ultimately what went wrong in the story. (Read the report here: ‘A Rape on Campus’ What Went Wrong?).
The thorough investigation revealed numerous flaws in the process and the steps that would have prevented such a failure. For instance, the reporter based the majority of her story on “Jackie,” a source she deemed credible because Jackie was referred by a University official. Rolling Stone based most of its story around the details provided by Jackie, including descriptions of the actual incident, the reactions from her three friends, the date and place of the party, and the main attacker. It was later found that the reporter never spoke to the three friends personally, even though they were mentioned in the article, and that there was no party at the frat on the night Jackie claimed. The Columbia report stated that Rolling Stone could have independently confirmed those details, rather than going through Jackie for each piece of information, and it could have been more resistant to use so many pseudonyms.
These mistakes are inexcusable, especially in a field that requires the highest code of honor, integrity, and perfection in finding the facts. And while it’s easy for us to frown upon the faults, I think this serves as a reminder to us: to be aware that journalists are human; and to go over things with a fine tooth comb.
The Columbia report acknowledges,”Investigative reporters working on difficult, emotive or contentious stories often have blind spots.” Working on a sensitive issue like this, especially hearing Jackie’s horrendously extensive tale, I can understand why the reporter may have been reluctant to challenge Jackie’s claims. In fact, it’s the humanity of journalists that lets us in on the best stories. The ability to make a source comfortable with divulging his/her most personal experiences; the sophistication of balancing basic fact with compelling storytelling; and the core power of connecting people are all very important, very human parts of the journalist’s job.
Rolling Stone was just a little too human in this case. Editor Sean Woods said: “Ultimately, we were too deferential to our rape victim; we honored too many of her requests in our reporting…We should have been much tougher, and in not doing that, we maybe did her a disservice.”
On top of accepting the shortcomings in the journalistic process for this story, I think we as people need to be more critical of the information we consume.
Sensational stories like the UVA case easily spark public outrage, but too often we get caught up in the headlines and don’t put enough thought into the details, like what colleges are actually doing to better handle cases of assault and how to reduce the stigma around victims to help them come forward.
Most importantly, we have to remember that sexual assault is a prevalent problem for many people on many college campuses. I remember the outrage when the Rolling Stone piece was first published. And given the traumatic story, the strong emotional response was justified, however, we should remember that Jackie — whatever her true story is — is just one case. The worst part about this controversy is that it took a viciously-detailed and dramatically-told story of rape to garner that kind of widespread public attention about the issue, when in fact, assaults can be kept quiet and victims can be forced to suffer silently.
When she took the story, ‘The Rape on Campus’ writer was looking for a single case to represent overall how colleges deal with sexual assault. She admitted Jackie’s story “was just the most dramatic example.”
Journalists shouldn’t necessarily pick the stories with most drama, and as an audience, we shouldn’t seek the stories with the most drama.
The report investigating Rolling Stone concludes, “The responsibilities that universities have in preventing campus sexual assault – and the standards of performance they should be held to – are important matters of public interest. Rolling Stone was right to take them on. The pattern of its failure draws a map of how to do better.”