Rolling Stone’s high-profile story about a rape at the University of Virginia sparked a fierce debate about campus sexual assault since its publication on Nov. 19, but the magazine’s recent acknowledgement that its account was false could have significant consequences for journalism in the United States, with some media leaders expressing concern that the backlash from the now-discredited story could possibly impact future reporting on sensitive subject matter.
Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s 9,000-word article alleged that a UVA student identified only as "Jackie" was the victim of a gang rape at one of the university’s oldest fraternities. Further investigations of the allegations by other news outlets, most notably the Washington Post, revealed a number of important discrepancies in the story while zeroing in on flaws in the reporting, including Erdely’s decision not to follow up on Jackie’s account by questioning the alleged perpetrators in deference to her subject’s wishes.
“Normally you get an amazing allegation against an entity or a group of individuals and you approach those individuals; that's what a journalist does,” said Jeff Cohen, an associate professor of journalism at Ithaca College in New York and a media critic. However, “the sensitivity around sexual assault and the requests for anonymity that are special to it led to an apparent journalistic failure in this case,” he said.
Public trust in mass media is already at an all-time low, according to a Gallup poll released in September. The Rolling Stone error could have the effect of reinforcing that perception in a dangerous way, Cohen said. “There's no doubt that these scandals erode trust, and I think this could have been avoided,” he said.
Sexual assault on college campuses is a nationwide problem, with the Department of Education currently investigating 55 colleges and universities for their handling of the issue. The White House launched a campaign to combat the problem in September, with President Barack Obama calling for a “fundamental shift in our culture” in the way victims of sexual assault are treated, according to the New York Times.
With the most high-profile account of rape published in a major magazine in recent years, Rolling Stone had the responsibility of doing due diligence on the facts of the case, said Tim J. McGuire, chair of the journalism program at Arizona State University in Phoenix and a former editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “This is such an important issue. The fact that the journalist messed up doesn't mean there's not a problem with campus sexual assault,” he said.
To be sure, American media companies have weathered other scandals in the past. There was the notorious case of “Jimmy’s World,” a 1980 Washington Post story about an 8-year-old heroin addict that earned its author, Janet Cooke, a Pulitzer Prize. The story ended up being a complete fabrication. More recently, Jayson Blair's series of fabricated and plagiarized articles at the New York Times in 2003 ignited a debate about media ethics across the nation. The Rolling Stone article, however, appears to be more about poor journalism practices than deliberate deceit.
“[The Rolling Stone story] is not like that," said Roy Peter Clark, a senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, the Florida-based journalism research center. "We know that Jackie exists. We know there are people around her who have contact with her who are named in the story.” The report also comes “nowhere close to the scandal of mainstream media outlets largely accepting and echoing obvious falsehoods and spin used to launch the Iraq invasion,” according to Cohen.
Part of what drove Rolling Stone's errors could be the widely accepted practices surrounding how media outlets treat rape victims. Unlike with other alleged victims, media outlets often refuse to describe the crime in detail and generally withold naming the people who allege the assaults. These agreements between reporters and sources could make it difficult for reporters to truly probe alleged victims for facts and details, but that shouldn't be standard practice, Clark said. “The problem is that because it's a story about rape, there are more minefields out there, the going is more treacherous, and so the standards of reporting, writing and editing should have been higher for this story -- and it looks as if they were lower,” he said.
Journalists should also never agree to restrict who they will interview, McGuire said. “At that point alarms should have gone off,” he said. “Rolling Stone fell for an old trick. You still have to make sure everything is true."
The impact of Rolling Stone’s flawed reporting on the story could have troubling consequences for future reporting on sexual assault cases. “I sure hope it doesn't dissuade rape survivors from talking to the authorities or journalists… I can't imagine how this particular issue would make a bona fide survivor feel about coming forward,” Cohen said.
There is also a fear that it might make journalists less eager to write about sexual assault in the future. "Other publications are going to look at the brickbats that Rolling Stone is facing and say we have to be twice as careful," said Caryl Rivers, a professor of journalism at Boston University. "Journalists might really now be asking their sources for a lot of documentation and, with a lot of these cases, it’s usually just a he said, she said. I think that’s going to make editors leery about doing these kinds of stories."
At the same time, it is important not to hold the case as representative of a larger problem around the media’s reporting on sexual assault, experts said. “I think the news media has worked very hard on trying to figure out how to cover rape and sexual assault responsibly,” said Clark. “I believe that the Rolling Stone piece is an anomaly in rape reporting.”