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Good intentions are not enough: Key lessons for journalists from Rolling Stone’s botched campus rap

The fallout from Rolling Stone’s story about campus rape continued this past week: Just a few hours after three former University of Virginia students filed a lawsuit against Rolling Stone, the magazine announced that its managing editor would be departing.

It’s disheartening that a story involving so much that was good—a spotlight on an important issue, a willingness to spend resources for a thorough investigation, and hundreds of hours of hard work and sincere effort—ended as a journalistic fiasco and a disservice to the story’s main source and rape victims in general.

The critiques of the story are a timely reminder that good intentions are not enough, and they serve as a real-life illustration of why journalism lessons are not just theoretical—they teach standard practices that allow journalists to tell the stories they intend, that mean audiences receive accurate information, that protect sources’ interests and that help prevent libel lawsuits.

In its report about the story, the Columbia Journalism Review noted that while the reporter and editors made many mistakes that might have resulted in a better investigation,

Three failures of reporting effort stand out. They involve basic, even routine journalistic practice—not special investigative effort. And if these reporting pathways had been followed, Rolling Stone very likely would have avoided trouble.

Below, we focus on those three failures.

First, a quick reminder about the facts of the case: Rolling Stone published “A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA,” by Sabrina Rubin Erdely, in late 2014 (the issue appeared online in November, and in print in December). The article, which focused on Jackie’s story of being gang-raped at a U.Va. fraternity, caused a nationwide sensation and led the university to temporarily suspend fraternity and sorority activities.

But key elements of the story came under question from reporters at other news agencies. Within weeks, Erdely said she could no longer stand by her story, and Rolling Stone retracted the story and eventually requested the Columbia Journalism school to conduct an investigation of what had gone wrong. The resulting report was published online by both the Columbia Journalism Review and Rolling Stone.

The most important reporting failure

Erdely did little to try to contact or identify any of the seven men Jackie said had raped her, or her date, whom she said had organized the attack. The article relied almost completely on its central source, Jackie (her real nickname), for its information about the rape.

When Rolling Stone turned over its records to the Columbia Journalism school, those included 405 pages of Erdely’s notes from research and interviews. It’s striking that so much detailed work failed to include contacting any of the people Jackie accused of raping her.

Slate reporters Allison Benedikt and Hanna Rosin expressed shock at Erdely’s lapse:

She must know the basic rules of reporting a story like this: You try very, very hard to reach anyone you’re accusing of something. You use any method you can think of, including the jerk reporter move of making a surprise, in-person confrontation. (Sarah Koenig, the host of the Serial podcast, provides a good example of reporter due diligence.) You try especially hard if you are writing about something as serious as a gang rape accusation. Sometimes, what results is a more layered version of the truth. Sometimes, the answer you get makes the accused seem even guiltier…

And here’s reporter Erik Wemple from the Washington Post about the failure to at least identify the alleged rapists:

This lapse is inexcusable: Even if the accused aren’t named in the story, Erdely herself acknowledges that “people seem to know who these people are.” If they were being cited in the story for mere drunkenness, boorish brat-boy behavior or similar collegiate misdemeanors, then there’d be no harm in failing to secure their input. The charge in this piece, however, is gang rape, and so requires every possible step to reach out and interview them, including e-mails, phone calls, certified letters, FedEx letters, UPS letters and, if all of that fails, a knock on the door. No effort short of all that qualifies as journalism.

The takeaway: If someone accuses another person of a crime in a news story, it’s essential that the reporter do everything possible to identify that person and talk to him for herself.

A second basic reporting failure

Erdely failed to contact three other key sources: In the Rolling Stone article, Jackie says she called three friends immediately after the rape and they met with her to console her. However, the article says that two of those friends discouraged Jackie from calling the police because they were concerned about appearances and their own reputations, and the portrait of all three is unflattering. Erdely never contacted the friends.

CJR’s report points out,

Journalistic practice—and basic fairness—require that if a reporter intends to publish derogatory information about anyone, he or she should seek that person’s side of the story.

Fairness was at stake here, but so was accuracy. Had Erdely contacted the three friends—whose account of that night differs in significant details from Jackie’s—Erdely would have realized the need for further investigation.

When Erdely was interviewed by Slate’s Rosin, Erdely said that she had talked with “virtually all” of Jackie’s friends to get their accounts of what they knew.” Note Rosin’s response:

And those matched? Like, the friends she spoke to at the time said yes, she had bruises from going through the glass table, or whatever?

After Erdely’s story, CJR contacted the three friends in question. They said they didn’t notice bruises or blood the night Jackie said she was raped; they gave different identifying details about the student whom Jackie said had raped her. This was a crucial missed opportunity to check the facts of Jackie’s story.

The takeaway: If a source criticizes someone or portrays him negatively, a journalist should interview that person. And even in a story about a crime as horrific as rape, a journalist should double-check a source’s account with sources who might be able to confirm details—or raise important questions about them.

Major reporting mistake number three

Erdely failed to provide any details when asking the fraternity, Phi Kappa Psi, for comment.

According to CJR,

Last October, as she was finishing her story, Erdely emailed Stephen Scipione, Phi Kappa Psi’s local chapter president. “I’ve become aware of allegations of gang rape that have been made against the UVA chapter of Phi Kappa Psi,” Erdely wrote. “Can you comment on those allegations?”

It was a decidedly truncated version of the facts that Erdely believed she had in hand. She did not reveal Jackie’s account of the date of the attack. She did not reveal that Jackie said Phi Kappa Psi had hosted a “date function” that night, that prospective pledges were present or that the man who allegedly orchestrated the attack was a Phi Kappa Psi member who was also a lifeguard at the university aquatic center. Jackie had made no request that she refrain from providing such details to the fraternity.

This withholding of information was unfair to Scipione and to Shawn Collinsworth, the national executive director of the fraternity, whom Erdely also asked for comment. They couldn’t double-check facts or provide another side to the story. And it was another missed opportunity for accuracy, as CJR points out:

If Erdely had provided Scipione and Collinsworth the full details she possessed instead of asking simply for ‘comment,’ the fraternity might have investigated the facts she presented. After Rolling Stone published, Phi Kappa Psi said it did just that.

The fraternity said it didn’t hold a date night function or party on the night that Jackie had told Erdely she was raped. And none of its members was a lifeguard at the time.

The takeaway: When asking a source to comment on what another source has told you, provide the commenting source with as much information as possible. As CJR acknowledges,

There are cases where reporters may choose to withhold some details of what they plan to write while seeking verification for fear that the subject might “front run” by rushing out a favorably spun version pre-emptively. … Here, there was no apparent need to fear “front-running” by Phi Kappa Psi.

And even when reporters don't reveal everything to a commenting source, this story is a good illustration of why it’s so important to provide as much relevant information as possible.

Campus rape is a serious problem. Many of the trends and attitudes portrayed in the Rolling Stone article deserve journalists’ attention. But that makes it all the more disturbing that when Rolling Stone focused its spotlight on the issue, it failed to follow basic journalistic standards in several ways.


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