Rolling Stone's November feature story “A Rape on Campus” detailed an alleged gang rape in terms so powerful and horrifying that it spurred action on the campus where the story was set and drove discussions across the country. But questions have piled up around the bombshell story, and Rolling Stone was in crisis-management mode by Friday evening. Following several days of criticism -- much of it surrounding the fact that the writer, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, did not appear to seek comment from the alleged perpetrators of the assault at a University of Virginia fraternity -- the magazine published an apology, citing new information that revealed “discrepancies” in the victim’s story.
Will Dana, Rolling Stone’s managing editor, conceded that the magazine’s trust in the victim, identified only as a female student named Jackie, was misplaced. He went on to say that the decision not to reach out to Jackie’s alleged rapists was out of respect for her wishes.
“We were trying to be sensitive to the unfair shame and humiliation many women feel after a sexual assault and now regret the decision to not contact the alleged assaulters to get their account,” Dana wrote.
That answer didn't satisfy many media critics, including fellow journalists. Roy Peter Clark, a media scholar and vice president of the Poynter Institute, where staffers have been discussing the Rolling Stone piece for several days, called the attack described in the story “one of the most brutal sexual crimes I’ve ever read about in an American magazine.” He said it seems implausible that a journalist wouldn’t reach out to the students accused of it.
“A traditional ethic of fairness suggests that when somebody is accused of something, especially of a serious crime, that you have an obligation to go to that person to find out that person’s reaction to the accusations, to hear an alternate story of what happened, potentially.”
Clark’s view is echoed by Kristen Lombardi, senior reporter for the Center for Public Integrity, who has plenty of firsthand experience to back it up. In 2009, she led a six-part investigative series on campus sexual assault, interviewing more than 50 students across the country who had reported their rapes to school officials. She said she was transparent with students about her extensive reporting process.
“One of the things I made people fully aware of was, ‘I’m a reporter,’” she said. “‘I’m not an advocate. I need to speak with everybody who came in contact with your case, including accused students.’ And students who had a real problem with that, we didn’t write about those cases.”
The extent to which journalists should independently verify facts told to them by sources is a matter of some debate, but there’s no doubt that the less due diligence journalists do, the more they leave themselves open to having a story blow up in their faces. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof learned that lesson earlier this year when questions arose about the backstory of Somaly Mam, the Cambodian human-rights activist he championed, but who turned out to have fabricated parts of her story about being trafficked into a brothel. The Pulitzer Prize-winning Kristof subsequently posted a mea culpa of sorts, conceding, “I now wish I had never written about her.”
Beyond the apology, Rolling Stone has not published an accounting of statements in the article that may be in error. “I don’t know what happened that night,” Dana said to the New York Times on Friday. “I don’t know who is telling the truth and who is not.”
Monika Johnson Hostler, president of the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence, said it’s important to remember that discrepancies are common in stories told by sexual assault victims. “All of our work around trauma and interviewing victims shows the stories are often inconsistent. Sometimes those details don’t ever become clear because of all the things we know about brain trauma."
But the issue becomes much trickier when reporting on a sexual assault in which the victim wishes to remain anonymous, or fears retaliation if her accusers are contacted. Lombardi said that fear is a valid concern, and so is the desire to protect a source from additional trauma. But journalists who accommodate those concerns risk doing more harm than good, she said.
“If someone is so afraid of telling your story that they’re preventing you from being able to get all sides of the story, then you have to seriously think about whether that person is really prepared to have their story told,” she said. “You don’t want your reporting process to become part of the story.”
That’s exactly what’s happening at Rolling Stone, to the detriment, Lombardi said, of the very issue the magazine was attempting to shine a light on. “It’s upsetting because this is a real systemic problem on college campuses,” she added. “My biggest fear is that the furor over the piece is going to be exploited by people who want to downplay the issue.”