A Second Look at the Rolling Stone Article on Rape at UVA

The Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism recently published a review of Rolling Stone’s “A Rape on Campus.” The magazine retracted the story. But as we read of the media blasting Rolling Stone’s reporting, we believe it is important to look at the greater context.

The Columbia Journalism School’s review discussed magazine staff working for six months on the story. Author Sabrina Erdely interviewed “Jackie” eight times, and fact checkers spoke with her for four hours. The periodical also reached out to the university and students. However, it ultimately became clear that the fraternity did not have a party that night, and the information about the organizer of her rape was inaccurate (although friends believe she was sexually assaulted by multiple men). The review concluded the major error was the heavy reliance on Jackie’s narrative. Certainly “Jackie” was deceptive with Erdely about the identities of her date for the night, as well as those of other friends. But Rolling Stone should have insisted on speaking to her friends, seriously questioned the use of pseudonyms, and clearly reported information sources.

Rolling Stone’s failure on this crucial story comes after many successes. Roughly a decade ago, it diversified from music journalism to outstanding political reporting. The magazine provided the best analysis of the financial crash and subsequent lawsuits through Matt Taibbi’s vivid columns, and outstanding coverage of climate change science and the “war on terror.” Indeed, its fact-based, agile reporting often highlighted biased or weak coverage in other media.

So how could Rolling Stone have mismanaged this story? Probably because they wanted to protect the victim. Erdely made the mistake of tolerating Jackie’s inaccessibility for two weeks (while Erdely was writing the story), probably because she viewed Jackie’s behavior as “consistent with a victim of trauma,” as the report noted. Surely the magazine—which previously published an article on high school girls’ suicides after rapes—was acutely aware of the vicious abuse, threats, and social condemnation that might face a student survivor. Perhaps Rolling Stone’s awareness of these issues was a key factor in their misguided efforts to protect her privacy and sanity.

But these errors were neither malicious nor opportunistic, nor did they inflict major permanent harm. They were unlike fabrications by The New Republic reporter Stephen Glass, The New York Times’ Jayson Blair, or the Washington Post’s Janet Cooke (which prompted the return of a Pulitzer for the Cooke article). And the harm was significantly mitigated by the retraction of the story after two weeks.

Rolling Stone did make serious but largely innocent mistakes in writing the UVA rape article. Nonetheless, the article brought widespread attention to campus sexual assault and prompted colleges and universities nationwide to examine their policies and resolve to improve their response to the problem. The challenge ahead will be how effectively these institutions provide the accountability to end sexual assaults on their campuses.

Veena Trehan, Chair
Global Women Task Force

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