When Rolling Stone magazine published an article in November about a rape at the University of Virginia, students, faculty and staff were outraged by the alarming accusations.
The article was written by Sabrina Erdely and told the story of a UVA student, known by the pseudonym Jackie, and her experience when she was, allegedly, raped by members of the fraternity Phi Kappa Psi.
It turns out the article was not only inaccurate, but some of the members of the fraternity Jackie stated raped her weren’t students, or even real people.
As more people became aware of the article, journalists took to social media to vent their frustrations.
“…It’s an affront to every reporter who has diligently recounted damning details to the other side, knowing your story might not survive,“ said Mike DeBonis, a reporter for The Washington Post.
Sam Stein, senior politics editor at the Huffington Post, said, “Rolling Stone should recognize that it’s not just their reputation on the line but the journalism industry’s too.”
As a journalist, seeing something like this unravel is disgusting. Like Stein said, when one journalist messes up, it reflects on all journalists, like it or not.
As journalists we are here to report the truth, not search for a sensational story without attempting to verify the facts.
All of this could have been avoided had Erdely researched her subject and the situation at hand in more depth.
It’s very clear that Erdely and the editors at Rolling Stone had a narrative already planned out, and they were looking for characters to fill that narrative, regardless of facts.
Reporting, especially on sensitive subjects like rape, is never an easy task. Talking to the subject directly involved in the case, I can imagine, is a daunting and difficult thing to do. But when basic journalistic practices aren’t put into action whenever covering a story, there is a problem.
This other issue that is even more concerning is Erdely still has her job.
On April 5, Rolling Stone retracted the article. Erdely publicly apologized for the article though her apology did not include any mention of the fraternity, or the members of the fraternity who were accused.
A spokesman for Rolling Stone Publisher Jann Wenner and Will Dana, managing editor, said Erdely would continue to write for the magazine.
As far as anyone knows, Erdely suffered no consequences for her negligence and is continuing her career as a journalist.
This is bothersome to me and many other journalists.
“Rolling Stone published a story that will live in journalistic infamy,” said Craig Silverman founder of Emergent.info. “Its response is to do absolutely nothing to prevent it from happening again.”
One of the best responses came from a professor of investigative journalism at the University of Maryland, Deborah Nelson.
“Rolling Stone violated the cardinal rule of investigative reporting: If your mother says she loves you, check it out. It is a too common mistake, even by seasoned journalists,” Nelson said. “You have got to verify the stories of the victims with the same vigor as the accused. You can do it with sensitivity but you’ve still got to do it. Verification is the holy grail of this kind of journalism. It protects the victims, the accused and — most importantly — the truth.”
Hopefully, for the sake of journalists and readers everywhere, a lesson has been learned.