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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Retracted Rolling Stone sexual assault story fallout is about more than just poor fact checking

The journalistic failures of Rolling Stone, both ethically and practically, in their reporting of a horrific sexual assault on the campus of the University of Virginia offers a stark example of how wrong things can go when an artfully worded and compelling narrative appears to have bypassed the fact-checking desk entirely on its way to publication.

While there story’s intent may have been to call attention to the issue of sexual assaults on college campuses, the retraction of “A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA” also inadvertently served to lessen the overall credibility of all rape victims.

One thing the editors of Rolling Stone and reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely found out was that other reporters, bloggers and students were wiling to do some fact-checking of their own, but not before the story brought an uproar on the U-Va campus and around the country.  Within a matter of days, U-Va opened an investigation and suspended the entire Greek system.  At the same time, the story began to unravel.  (The Washington Post offers a timeline of events here.)

Writing for the Voices section of USA Today, copy desk chief and U-Va graduate Susan Miller explains that she found the story disturbing for reasons beyond the account of the alleged crime.

When I could finally swallow my anger and angst, I re-read the Rolling Stone piece a few days later. This time, however, I was able to detach from the scintillating prose — and I found the story unsettling for other reasons:

• Embedded throughout the narrative were verses from a 70-year-old school song the reporter deemed “naughty,” implying a culture of abusing women for decades. How could one make that leap?

• The word “alleged” never appeared in the 9,000-word article.

• There were changed names and quotes from unidentified people. On a guided tour of fraternity row, the reporter quotes a nameless student: “I know a girl who got assaulted there.” Chimes in a second nameless student: “I do, too! That makes two! Yay!”

• There was missing or unclear attribution. The story says “studies have shown that fraternity men are three times as likely to commit rape.” Which studies?

• And the most gaping hole of all: There was no mention of any attempt to contact the alleged perpetrators or to verify the events.

Miller concludes her piece by pointing out the larger problem with the Rolling Stone story, noting, “The resulting firestorm is drowning out the voices that still deserve to be heard: the Jackies who may have suffered sexual assaults at Virginia and college campuses across the land.”

This unfortunate aspect of the fallout as well as the ethical failings of Rolling Stone’s reporter and editors was also noted by Katy Culver, associate director for the University of Wisconsin Center for Journalism Ethics, when she spoke with Tanya Rivero of the Wall Street Journal’s video program, Lunch Box.

[Image by Ryan M. Kelly, via USA Today]

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