Journalism prof: Rolling Stone debacle illustrates “dilution of ethics”

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Three men and UVA graduates from the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity are now suing Rolling Stone. Photo: Martyn Kyle Three men and UVA graduates from the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity are now suing Rolling Stone. Photo: Martyn Kyle

More than two weeks after Rolling Stone’s “A Rape on Campus” exploded onto the national scene and then imploded into a victim-blaming retraction, the story itself promises to live on—as a cautionary tale in journalism classes.

“[T]his will be an object lesson in reporting and editing, especially high-impact stories on an emotionally charged issue such as rape,” said Virginia Commonwealth University journalism Professor Jeff South in an e-mail. “The Rolling Stone story has been the subject of intense discussions in our reporting classes. Like the rest of the world, I think we were carried along as the pendulum swung from ‘devastating exposé!’ to ‘who knows what to believe?’.”

The charge largely was led by news organizations like The Washington Post, The New York Times and Slate, which pointed out some Journalism 101 omissions, such as not confirming first-year Jackie’s account of an alleged 2012 gang rape with people who would have been there that night, including the friends she said she spoke with and her alleged attackers.

Reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely and editor Sean Woods initially deflected questions about whether she’d attempted to contact “Drew,” the third-year Jackie said worked at a pool with her and invited her to a September 28, 2012, party at Phi Kappa Psi, where she alleged she was assaulted by seven men, with Drew and another man encouraging them on. Although Erdely spoke with
C-VILLE days after the November 19 online publication of her story, neither she nor Woods responded to requests for comment on this article.

By December 5, the Post’s story detailing inaccuracies in Rolling Stone came out.  Phi Kappa Psi denied the fraternity had a member who worked at the Aquatic & Fitness Center, and said there was no social event the night Jackie claimed she was attacked. Rolling Stone published an apology that pretty much blamed the victim.

“In the face of new information, there now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie’s account, and we have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced,” wrote managing editor Will Dana on the Rolling Stone website. He said the decision not to contact the men was at Jackie’s request, for fear of retaliation.

South suggests Rolling Stone should have considered how the retraction would sound to readers, including Jackie and other sexual assault victims. “Are you really going to ‘blame the victim’ for errors in the story?” he asked.

“As a professional journalist, you can’t blame your sources,” said John Watson, associate professor of journalism ethics at American University. “That’s a cardinal sin.”

The retraction morphed that same day to shift the fingerpointing from Jackie back to Rolling Stone. “Given all of these reports, however, we have come to the conclusion that we were mistaken in honoring Jackie’s request to not contact the alleged assaulters to get their account,” read the latter version of the Rolling Stone apology, with no mention that it had been changed.

“This is symptomatic of the widespread dilution of ethics in the digital era,” said Watson, who cites a rush to get the story up first, and correct mistakes later. Part of a news organization’s credibility is based on correcting mistakes, acknowledging they’ve been corrected and letting readers know it will always correct mistakes, even if no one has noticed them yet, he said.

Watson said he teaches a class on how to write corrections. “Writing a blanket statement isn’t really helpful,” he said of Rolling Stone’s effort. The correction should be as detailed as possible, he said, and mimic the original story—even going line-by-line if necessary to parse out what is true in the 9,000-word story. The frequency of sexual assault on campus, for instance—”that data is still good and they should let people know,” said Watson. “They got a lot of attention, and they can still do good.”

Erdely’s problem, said Watson, is that she lost the skepticism that’s essential for a reporter, even if the source is a rape victim. “If Jesus Christ comes down, I have to be skeptical,” said Watson.

“A lot of what we do appears ugly and morally reprehensible,” he said, such as questioning a rape victim’s story. “But ethically it’s required.”

Reaction to the Rolling Stone story was also flawed, Watson said.

In shutting down fraternities and sororities, he said, “UVA acted too precipitously.” The University should have opened a proper investigation, but a news story is not evidence, he said. “Journalism isn’t about telling the truth because we don’t always know the truth. It’s about collecting the best evidence of the truth.”

The national organizations for sororities and fraternities agree, and on December 7 released a statement criticizing UVA President Teresa Sullivan’s “rush to judgment” in suspending Greek activities and demanded that the University immediately reinstate them, apologize and release all records that formed the basis for the decision to suspend activities.

“This decision was made before an investigation into all of the facts alleged in the story was completed and it was not consistent with the law or university policies,” said the Fraternity and Sorority Political Action Committee, the National Panhellenic Conference and the North American Fraternity Conference in a statement. “The school’s decision to suspend hurt the reputation of thousands of outstanding student leaders in our organizations who had nothing to do with the alleged events described in the article.”

Watson doesn’t think the Rolling Stone debacle will hurt the focus on sexual assault on campuses spurred by the story—and the national fraternal orgs vowed to lead the fight against sexual assault. Sullivan seemed to concur in a statement released the same day as the retraction: “Today’s news must not alter this focus.”

December 10: In the original version of this story, Sean Woods’ name was misspelled. It has been corrected.