Rolling Stone failure drains trust in reporting

Hiba Ahmad
Contributing Columnist

Illustration by Erin Bushnell

The journalism community has been under fire for a while now. The media has been criticized for everything from glossing over the issues of minority groups to allowing political and personal agendas to drive reporting.

Objectivity, a characteristic that every journalist is supposed to hone, is being compromised and the recent Rolling Stone magazine debacle is not helping the case. On Nov. 19, 2014, Rolling Stone published an article titled

“A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at U.Va.” that highlighted a horrific incident of sexual assault that occurred at a university 70 miles away from VCU.

The impressive 9,000 word exposé sent shockwaves across social media and college campuses because of its vivid account of a horrific rape conveyed through what appeared to be strong reporting. The ongoing conversation regarding rape culture and sexual assault on college campuses was finally receiving a notion of attention that it so greatly deserved. However, with any big story, comes speculation. This time, the questions that were raised uncovered cracks in the story that couldn’t simply be acknowledged in an editors note in the next issue.

The Washington Post, Slate magazine and other press outlets questioned the reputability of the sources used by the author of the article, Sabrina Rubin Erdely. Critics noticed that the interview with Jackie, the student who was the victim of the sexual assault, was the sole source for information recalling all of the events that occurred the night of her rape. For example, despite the fact that Jackie mentioned that she had friends and other people she came in contact with that night, none of them were interviewed for the article. 

Erdely herself realized after the article was published that there were major holes in her story and the claims Jackie had made. Due to Erdely’s failure to use ethical journalism  practices, Rolling Stone was faced with a massive public crisis concerning one of the most-read articles in their history. Managing editor Will Dana and his colleagues decided to contact an outside source, administrators at Columbia University’s School of Journalism, to evaluate the story and the process that it took to bring it to publication.

The report by Columbia’s School of Journalism revealed an embarrassing number of errors in the editing process and lack of ethical journalism on the behalf of Erdely. The report states, “Rolling Stone’s repudiation of the main narrative in ‘A Rape on Campus’ is a story of journalistic failure that was avoidable. The failure encompassed reporting, editing, editorial supervision and fact-checking.” The report goes on to argue that if the proper editing practices were followed then editors would possibly have considered holding off on publishing the piece until more research was compiled.

The editors at Rolling Stone published the harsh realities highlighted in the report and announced that “A Rape on Campus” had officially been retracted from the magazine. The staff apologized for the damage that the article caused U.Va.’s reputation, the fraternity that was highlighted and any individuals who are survivors of sexual assault. In the article they wrote, “Erdely and her editors had hoped their investigation would sound an alarm about campus sexual assault and would challenge Virginia and other universities to do better.”

It’s a shame that the exact opposite happened. Witnessing a media publication as prominent and well-respected as Rolling Stone make such a grave mistake is discouraging, not only for its readers, but for aspiring journalists across the nation. The magazine has done a disservice to its readers. But rather than becoming more wary of the media, audiences need to understand how and why the media is drastically changing, as it has been for years. The way we currently consume news is a product of rapid publication of information by way of new technologies and social media.

Consumers need to question all information, like what was published in the Rolling Stone article, that is constantly being thrown at them just like a journalist does. More often than not, the reports and images presented have been glamorized to sway opinion to one extreme or another. Though it might require audiences to step out of their comfort zone, readers can not afford to be passive, but always be engaged with the information circulating around them and question it.

As for young journalists, Rolling Stone has done our community and future profession a disservice. It is a blessing in disguise in the sense that it is something to learn from and should inspire a willingness to change the face of the media. Here at VCU, we have a mass communications department that is constantly working to create polished and hard working graduates. Starting from the MASC101 course we all take to the final capstone courses we complete senior year, we are taught that ethical practices are the only way to report.

Jeff South, a print journalism professor, said, “The debacle over Rolling Stone’s discredited story about rape at U.Va. is a cautionary tale for journalists and journalism students: journalism is a discipline of verification.”

This practice of self and systematic discipline is essential to the success of delivering honest news. Anything short of that is a failure to yourself and to the public you serve.

There are always opportunities for improvement and more research. Remain hungry, but not desperate. The public deserves to be told the truth, and seasoned journalists have the skills and the right to do exactly that.

Everyone can learn from the grave mistake made by Rolling Stone magazine. The magazine overlooked important steps that could have been used to catch a lie. This can happen to anyone, whether you are the one in the newsroom delivering the stories or the viewer on the couch. Everyone has a responsibility to themselves to question the information they encounter.

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