It started off innocent enough. A female college student. An alleged gang rape. A magazine journalist trying to do the right thing.
I didn’t read Rolling Stone’s article, “A Rape on Campus,” about an alleged gang rape of a woman named Jackie at a University of Virginia frat house. But for the sake of this commentary, I didn’t have to read it.
All I read was Rolling Stone’s “Note to Our Readers” published on Dec. 5, 2014 — and that was enough.
The note, published by Managing Editor Will Dana, admits Rolling Stone’s failure to properly investigate and verify the woman’s story. It reads, “due to the sensitive nature of Jackie’s story, we decided to honor her request not to contact the man who she claimed orchestrated the attack on her nor any of the men who she claimed participated in the attack for fear of retaliation against her.”
Understandable, right? Maybe for that small, weekly community newspaper, where circulation doesn’t exceed 22,000 and most of its reporting staff are interns or rookies out of college. But for freakin’ Rolling Stone Magazine, which churned out an article generating worldwide headlines and prompting a university investigation … ummm, no.
Here’s the problem with Rolling Stone’s decision.
They let the first rule of good, hard, ethical journalism slide: objectiveness. Which means checking both sides, regardless of your thoughts on the issue’s sensitivity. If your source is a Deep Throat, then you verify facts elsewhere.
This seems cold, but folks, the consequences of failing to conduct yourself in this manner, as a professional journalist, could be far colder … like what happened with Rolling Stone.
Recent reports from The Washington Post and other news outlets have since surfaced, showing “there now appear(s) to be discrepancies in Jackie’s account,” according to Rolling Stone’s note to readers.
Now, is it possible Jackie was sexually assaulted or even raped? Of course. But due to Rolling Stone’s failure to remain objective, and thoroughly verify her account, the magazine just created a greater boundary for any rape victim to cross when convincing the authorities of an attack.
Perhaps, Rolling Stone should have just stuck to its journalistic guns the first time, and refused to run Jackie’s story unless its reporters could contact the alleged attackers.
And I’m talking from experience.
Eight years ago, when I worked as a newspaper reporter covering education, a group of three girls approached me from a local college. They accused the college of covering up sexual harassment, and sometimes even assault, on a regular basis.
Of course, I took this very seriously, and started looking to interview more sources. However, no one would go on record. Since no one reported anything to police, I couldn’t verify crime reports. Eventually, I told the girls if they refused to cooperate and go on record, no story. They didn’t, and therefore, nothing ever ran.
Which brings to light something else: is this mistake by Rolling Stone representative of what’s happening everywhere to good journalism?
With the rise of social media and the blogosphere, I have seen the decline of traditional journalistic ethics in lieu of special interests and editorialized rants. This isn’t everywhere … yet. But what happens when the lines between propaganda and journalism are blurred? What happens when we can no longer trust that our sources of news are objective, allowing us to decide for ourselves?
Rolling Stone should have never made the decision it did, regardless of its editors’ and/or reporters’ views on the sensitive nature of rape. By giving in to their subjectivity, they negated objectivity, and only further tainted the very issue they were trying to protect.
Shari Lopatin is a professional writer, journalist, and social media strategist who lives in Phoenix, Ariz. She recently finished her first novel and blogs about the lessons she learns while finding a literary agent, among other topics (like this post). Want to follow Shari’s progress toward a book deal? Then join The Readers Club! Sign up here.