When Rolling Stone magazine retracts a story, you know something’s wrong in the world of journalistic integrity.
Last November, Rolling Stone published a feature story about an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia. The horrific details had an explosive effect across the United States, where campus rape has already been a topic of concern. But as people would soon find out, the truth regarding that event became questionable, leading Rolling Stone magazine to retract the article. This isn’t the only example of a breach of journalism ethics recently, forcing us to ask: “How can we trust what we read or watch in mainstream media?”
Sabrina Rubin Erdely, the journalist behind the article, had set out to write a piece on the campus rape epidemic sweeping through the country. After speaking to a multitude of students across well-known colleges, she found that the most moving story was that of Jackie, a student at UVA. The story was retold by Erdely, in “graphic detail.”
However, within days of publication, the story and its sources were being widely questioned.
In the weeks following the report, UVA was swept up with an enraged student body and the fraternity house of Phi Kappa Psi was put into question. As further investigation ensued, the story’s credibility was looking increasingly problematic.
Melinda Murphy, Emmy-award winning journalist and editor of the Singapore American newspaper, said, “From what I’ve read, it seems that the magazine was too eager to publish the story. ‘Jackie,’ the main source who claimed to have been gang raped, was interviewed and cross-interviewed by the fact checker and her story always remained the same.” But “by not getting confirmation from third-party sources, this incredibly well-respected journalist bumbled the story,” Murphy said.
Erdely herself – who is an incredibly well-respected journalist – began to question the entire story. It was then that the article was put into severe questioning by the magazine.
By December of last year, The Washington Post published an updated account of the story, refuting the claims made in the article. It revealed the immense bias of the piece. By April 2015, Rolling Stone retracted the article.
The president of the university, Teresa A. Sullivan, expressed concerns of the article “unjustly [damaging] the reputations of many individuals.” While the university itself is not suing the magazine, Phi Kappa Psi is. The fraternity announced that it would take legal action against Rolling Stone, exactly six months after publication.
Rolling Stone’s editors decided to reach out to the Columbia School of Journalism, commissioning an investigation of the article. They asked for “any lapses” in reporting. Written by the dean of the school, Steve Coll, the 13,000-word report was published on April 5.
This is not the first breach of journalistic conduct occurring in the past year or so. In 2015 alone, NBC News’ anchorman, Brian Williams, was suspended from his job for explicitly fabricating a story that occurred in 2003. According to Pressthink, “Williams dishonored the courage and sacrifice of NBC war correspondents. This violates another sacred duty in big league journalism.”
Columbia Graduate School of Journalism said Rolling Stone failed to undergo “basic, even routine journalistic practice” prior to publication. The report by Columbia University said that the entire incident could have been avoided if these basic “pathways” had been taken into consideration.
Erdely told the writers of the report that Jackie proved to be a “difficult source.” There was a moment when “an alarm bell went off in my head,” said Erdely.
All of this leads to the idea of journalistic integrity; how much can we really trust the information given by journalists, however acclaimed and experienced they are?
Junior Kaitlyn Crawford said, “I don’t know much about the rules of journalism, but I don’t think they took every precaution to understand the story fully. When you make an accusation which is that large, you need to verify with multiple sources because almost anyone could make things up.”
Rolling Stone replaced the initial article on their website with the Columbia report. Will Dana, managing editor, wrote, “With its publication, we are officially retracting ‘A Rape on Campus’.”
The team formally apologized and acknowledged that the report was “the only responsible and credible thing to do” in the aftermath of the article.
The magazine’s journalistic “failure” as described by numerous publications, is also a dangerous point for sexual assault allegations. Now, many people can turn to the idea that women create elaborate stories on sexual assault. A major concern is that the stories of survivors will no longer be believed.
On the issue, Dana said, “It saddens us to think that their willingness to [step forward] might be diminished by our failings.”
According to Murphy, this is one of the major consequences. “Girls who actually have been sexually assaulted may be less likely to step forward now.”
Here at SAS, we access news on a daily basis, whether it’s found on the daily morning show or for our personal interests. Students claim to trust the sources they turn to for news.
“Rolling Stone has a reputation, so I would normally have trusted it,” said Crawford, who frequently visits websites such as CNN and Buzzfeed.
SAS Eye editor, Jenna Nichols, said, “It’s different if someone intentionally fabricates a story, but this wasn’t the case. Erderly’s article was on a sensitive topic and I think she was just trying to handle the article sensitively.”
That being said, Nichols strongly believes that the article remains a journalistic failure. “Any time a major publication gets information wrong, they’re going against their primary purpose.”
Breaches of journalistic conduct in any publication are altogether dangerous in today’s multimedia world.
These violations – whether intentional or not – bring up the question of trust between the sources of information and the audience. If readers start to feel distrust for these providers, there will be a newfound level of skepticism.
Sensationalizing or exaggerating is perhaps fueled by a craving for attention and readership. In Brian Williams’ case, many people believe this was the motivation behind his misleading reporting. In Erdely’s case, the verdict is more difficult to reach. In both situations, the journalistic purpose of honest storytelling was discounted in one way or the other
“It takes one story to destroy a reputation,” said Murphy. “It takes dozens, if not hundreds – maybe even thousands – to rebuild it.”
Honesty is considered an essential quality of journalism as an institution. The risk of losing trust between a publication and its readers should have been enough to check the facts, once, twice, and again.