The road to hell is too often paved with good intentions. Sabrina Rubin Erdely and Rolling Stone wanted to support the victim of an alleged sexual assault at a college fraternity party. They were being compassionate, rather than skeptical; and now, three former University of Virginia students that were implicated in the magazine’s November 2014 cover story titled “A Rape on Campus” are suing them for defamation.
What was well-intentioned advocacy for victims rights failed to meet the basic standards of a 101-level ethics course in journalism. In the process, Erdely and Rolling Stone created more victims, and not just the young men that are now suing them. The story is no longer one about sexual assault on college campuses; it is about the credibility of rape victims and journalists.
The fundamental error was Erdely and Rolling Stone’s reliance on the accuser—“Jackie”—as the sole source of information, and lack of scrutiny about her request that none of the men whom she said had participated in the attack be contacted to get their version of what happened.
Essential ethical questions should have been immediately raised—and not just because of the potential for a defamation suit: Isn’t the truth better served by getting all accounts of the story? What are the potential ulterior motives of the accuser? Did the reporter and editor make any attempt to explain to Jackie the importance of naming the accused? If Jackie feared retaliation from those she accused, could others steps have been taken to protect her—and were those considered? Isn’t the accused entitled to respond? Isn’t the public entitled to as much information as possible?
There were other basic fact-checking steps that should have been taken too, such as clarifying everyone’s timelines of the events (even between Jackie and her friends), as well as verifying details about the party where the alleged attack occurred.
In the digital age, when reporters and editors fail to rigorously interrogate their own work, others will do the fact checking through online crowdsourcing. The story claimed that rape was part of a pledging ritual in the fall, but University of Virginia pledging occurs in spring, and there were no pledges in the fraternity at the time of the alleged assault. Several other obvious discrepancies began to arise between Jackie’s account of the event and other sources of information, such as no known fraternity parties the night of the alleged attack, or no fraternity members matching Jackie’s description of the assailant. The list goes on from there as detailed in a report by the Columbia School of Journalism, which the Rolling Stone commissioned in the wake of controversy after the magazine retracted its story.
While Erdely and Rolling Stone’s intentions may have been noble, the ultimate lesson in this case is that effective advocacy requires a healthy dose of scrutiny and verification. For example, attorneys will prepare their own clients for at trial by vigorously challenging their recollection of the facts, and comparing it to other witnesses and evidence. A good editor should do no less and interrogate the reporter and the reporter’s sources to ensure that the story is accurate and credible.
Tragically, the very group for which this story was trying to advocate—victims of sexual assault—might have been harmed the most, not to mention the reporters who try to responsibly tell their stories.
Dr. Blevins is an associate professor and Head of the Journalism Department at the University of Cincinnati where he teaches media law and ethics.
Find Dr. Blevins on Twitter: @JeffBlevins19 and @JournalismUC