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Opinion: ‘Rolling Stone’ feature must be a lesson in journalism

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“A Rape on Campus,” a Rolling Stone magazine feature, turned out to be one of its most disputed, which led the magazine to retract the story this week.

The article, published in November, was about a University of Virginia student’s account of an alleged gang rape at a fraternity house. Questions emerged after it was published about the details and factual accuracy of the story.

Rolling Stone asked the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism to investigate what had potentially gone wrong in its reporting process. The resulting report was released Sunday, titled, “Rolling Stone and UVA: The Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism Report.”

The report revealed, among other things, that the victim feared she would be found by the man she claimed orchestrated her gang rape. As a result, the editors ran the article without verifying his existence.

With sensitive subjects, rape in this case, it is important for journalists to approach the situation sensitively. But being considerate of a victim’s circumstances should not get in the way of the journalistic process.

The fact-checkers might have spent countless hours reviewing the victim’s account with all its gruesome details, but to blame a person without knowing his name is a crime in itself.

Also, The Guardian pointed out that, in this 9,000-word piece, the writer never actually spoke with the friends of the victim who were indirectly quoted in the article.

I remember reading this article when it was published and it never even occurred to me that someone could have fabricated this horrendous account, especially during a time when sexual assaults are so prominent in college culture. Jackie, the pseudonym the victim was called in the article, put into question the integrity of a major magazine that has been read and trusted for nearly half a century, a university that has been respected for nearly two centuries, a national fraternity that has existed since 1852 and every rape victim ever.

Part of me wants to blame the young woman who created this nationwide scandal, but I think Rolling Stone should take most of the heat for this one, which I believe it has with its public apologies, acknowledgements of its errors and proactive behavior in asking the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism to investigate.

It is our job as journalists to convey the facts because that is what our readers need and expect.

Let this failure in basic journalism, which is how this incident has been described, be a lesson to journalists on the repercussions of making judgment calls. Let this be a lesson on the risk of publishing blind accusations.

2 comments

  1. Re: “Jackie, the pseudonym the victim was called in the article….” Two points. First, it seems that “Jackie” was the person’s real name, as she has apparently been identified. It’s not hard to find her identity with a little searching on the web. Second, and much more important, what basis is there to believe Jackie was a victim? When referring to Jackie, it seems to me that it would be appropriate to use the phrase, “Jackie, the person who claimed to be a victim.” If there is any fact that supports her claim, that fact should be included in the article.

  2. It is interesting to compare the UVa rape case with our own University’s dismissal of the Marching Band Director. In both cases, limited and uncorroborated testimony from just one or two witnesses was used as evidence, and parties on the other side were never interviewed for a counter balance. In both cases University administrators rushed to a conclusion that fitted their agenda, aided by uninformed clamor from constituencies on their campus. In both cases, innocent parties were irreparably damaged, with no thought for their rights. In both cases the perpetrator of the mischief simply dug its heels in and refused to conduct a proper review, even as the original report was systematically dismantled by closer reviews in each case. It is also interesting to note that a principal player in overseeing the federal response to each case is Elizabeth Lhamon, head of the Department of Education Office of Civil Rights, who is shown to have close ties with certain parties at UVa, and who knows at OSU?
    Add these to the infamous Duke lacrosse case, and we can see a pattern in which the particular agendas of certain individuals, be they in a magazine or in a University administration, clearly trump the need for truth and balance, and ride rough shod over the rights and lives of individuals. It is time to take a less hysterical approach to such claims, and to perform due diligence in investigating all sides of them thoroughly.

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