NOVEMBER 2014 - Unreliable Sources, Journalistic Mistakes, and Rolling Stone
Photo Caption and Credit: Image from PBS NewsHour Broadcast on May 12, 2015, after the inaccuracies of the Rolling Stone UVA Rape Story, were reviewed and deemed a failure by Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. (Screenshot courtesy of Sara Pool)
By: Bailee Bauermeister
On Nov.19, 2014, Rolling Stone published, “A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA.” This story by Sabrina Rubin Erdely detailed a gut-wrenching account of a gang rape and the injustice that occurred at the University of Virginia. According to the report published by the Columbia Journalism Review, Jackie, the subject of the article, had told Erdely of the assault after the two were connected through Emily Renda, who was a staff member at the University of Virginia working on sexual assault issues at the University (Coronel, Coll, & Kravitz, 2015). Renda was also a rape survivor herself. Over eight interviews, Jackie told her story to Erdely. During the interviews, Jackie informed Erdely that the rape occurred at a Phi Kappa Psi fraternity party, which she was invited to by a fellow lifeguard (Erdely, 2014). Once at the fraternity party, the lifeguard brought Jackie upstairs and coached seven other boys into raping her (Erdely, 2014). Jackie refused to disclose the full name of the rapist who orchestrated the attack. This raised a red flag for Erdely, but Erdely did not want to push Jackie.
When the story was published, it “ultimately attracted more than 2.7 million views” (Coronel, Coll, & Kravitz, 2015). But within a week, questions started being raised about the story’s accuracy. After a troublesome conversation with Jackie, Erdely and her editor, Sean Woods, decided to retract the reporting.
As noted in the article, “Dueling scandals: Rolling stone, Brian Williams, and repairing a damaged paradigm” by Raymond McCaffrey, Erdely’s story “started crumbling after The Washington Post looked into why the magazine had relied on a single anonymous source” (Mccaffrey, 2017). After a thorough follow-up and fact-checking by The Washington Post, it was clear that Jackie falsified the story. But this raised the question: Where did it all go wrong?
One of the issues identified by Erdely and her team was being “too accommodating of Jackie because she described herself as the survivor of a terrible sexual assault” per Columbia Journalism Review (Coronel, Coll, & Kravitz, 2015). This resulted in Erdely being less than diligent when fact-checking Jackie’s sources. The Washington Post also noted that Erdely did not go to the proper measure to contact three of Jackie’s friends (Wemple, 2014). When interviewed by The Washington Post, the three sources told them “that the story reported by Rolling Stone doesn’t match what Jackie told them that night” (Wemple, 2014). The man who Jackie claimed orchestrated the rape was also not looked into thoroughly. After some digging, The Washington Post found that Jackie’s date on the night of the incident was not a UVA student (Wemple, 2014). Erdely and her colleagues did not properly contact the key sources, which resulted in repercussions for sexual assault victims and journalistic integrity globally.
Due to the false, defamatory accusations published in Rolling Stone about a UVA administrator and the fraternity, the magazine faced lawsuits. The article painted Nicole Eramo, the UVA administrator, as unhelpful and apathetic in seeking justice for Jackie (McCallister, 2017). The article also ruined the fraternity’s reputation, which linked them to the heinous sexual assault. In April 2017, Rolling Stone reached a confidential settlement for a defamation suit with Nicole Eramo. During the trial, Jackie claimed she had “trouble remembering details of her assault and the aftermath because she has post-traumatic stress disorder” (Associated Press in Charlottesville, Virginia, 2016). According to The New York Times, in an article published on July 13, 2017, Rolling Stone also “pa[id] the Virginia Alpha Chapter of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity $1.65 million” (Ember, 2017). Along with monetary repercussions for the false story, the magazine received shame for its lack of diligence.
Columbia Journalism Review found that “the magazine’s failure may have spread the idea that many women invent rape allegations” (Coronel, Coll, & Kravitz, 2015). Furthermore, it has added to the public’s lack of trust in journalists. One redemptive quality of this case is that “Rolling Stone also ultimately displayed a degree of accountability” (McCaffrey, 2017, p. 230). Erdely and her editor made a huge mistake but kept their jobs because Rolling Stone, as a whole, took responsibility. Rolling Stone revoked the article, issued an apology, and even asked the Dean of the Columbia School of Journalism to “investigate any lapses in reporting, editing and fact-checking behind the story” (Coronel, Coll, & Kravitz, 2018). Rolling Stone’s actions showcased their commitment to ethical reporting. This is not always the case in journalistic scandals, but it is a step in the right direction to regain credibility.