American Culture

Rolling Stone’s UVA story flogged as flawed — and rightly so

Magazine’s story on college assault claim burdened with shaky sources, biased choice of UVA

Critics are panning Rolling Stone’s 9,000-word account of a sexual assault, an account that preceded protests at the University of Virginia and vandalism of the fraternity house at which, the article claims, the assault occurred.

The chief complaints: First, Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s Nov. 19 story about a woman identified as “Jackie” relied too heavily on the woman making the accusation and failed to show attempts to interview those accused. Second, Erdely “shopped” for a context that best fit her own agenda in proposing and crafting the story. Here’s Washington Post media reporter Erik Wemple:

Rolling Stone thought it had found the “right” campus and the right alleged crime: Following her Nov. 19 story on Jackie’s alleged assault in a dark room at the Phi Kappa Psi house, the university suspended all fraternity activities and a national spotlight fell on the issue of campus rape.

Now it’s all falling apart. Thanks to several days of reporting by The Washington Post’s T. Rees Shapiro, Rolling Stone’s account is not even a semester away from becoming part of journalism classes around the country. Jackie’s friends now doubt her account of the traumatic event, reports Shapiro, and the fraternity insists it never held a “a date function or social event” on the weekend of Sept. 28, 2012, which is the date cited by Jackie in the Rolling Stone story.

Result: Rolling Stone’s managing editor, Will Dana, has attached a 293-word note at the top of Erdely’s story, saying, “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. (emphasis in original)” All this leaves media critics to attack journalism’s machinery of story-making.

I was trained as a geologist. My profs taught me that in seeking rock samples for analysis, the ordinary is more instructive than the extraordinary.

This is Rolling Stone’s most significant error. It sought the extraordinary example of the issue of sexual assault rather than the ordinary — meaning the most common — example. The Washington Post’s Paul Fahri argues bias guided critical decision making.

Magazine writer Sabrina Rubin Erdely knew she wanted to write about sexual assaults at an elite university. What she didn’t know was which university.

So, for six weeks starting in June, Erdely interviewed students from across the country. She talked to people at Harvard, Yale, Princeton and her alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania. None of those schools felt quite right. But one did: the University of Virginia, a public school, Southern and genteel, brimming with what Erdely calls “super-smart kids” and steeped in the legacy of its founder, Thomas Jefferson.

Erdely went shopping, and UVA — “a public school, Southern and genteel” — became the chosen frame for the issue of sexual assault on college campuses. Erdely chose the extraordinary rather than the ordinary. Rolling Stone editors allowed the choice — perhaps because a medium dependent on advertising to fund its business model seeks to maximize shock value. The extraordinary produces far more page views than the ordinary.

Reading the story obviously produced outrage in sufficient numbers of people to induce protests that led a university to suspend fraternity and sorority activities. Rape? On a college campus? Of a first-year student new to campus? Of course it’s outrageous.

Now read the story again. Once you see the sleight-of-hand, you’ll be outraged again.

The story has plenty of named sources: the dean of the sexual-conduct board, the associate vice president of student affairs, the executive director of SurvJustice, Jackie’s roommate, an official with the U.S. Office of Civil Rights, the national director and chapter president of the suspect fraternity, a victim-rights advocate, a former UVA dean, the parent of a daughter who filed a claim of assault at UVA, a Title IX lawyer, the president of UVA, and several students and grads identified by name.

It’s understandable why “Jackie” is not named. As an editor, I kept the names of sexual-assault victims out of my newspaper even as I identified those arrested and charged (but not yet tried) with the assault. (That’s another issue for another time.)

But what about “Andy”? And “Cindy”? And “Drew”? And what about the unnamed undergraduate “guides” who shepherded Erdely around campus and who made numerous claims with no factual basis? Why are their identities withheld?

Rolling Stone editors allowed unnamed sources to make claims at critical points of the story without seeking a factual foundation for the claims. Jackie’s account of events constitutes 2,700 words of the 9,000-word story. Shapiro’s reporting has left doubt in the minds of some about the veracity of those words.

Rolling Stone editors should have listened to Reagan: “Trust, but verify.”

The story at first “works” because it’s laced with authoritative sources. It’s a compelling story. It “feels” substantial. But on closer inspection, the critical points of the story rest on shaky foundations. WashPo’s Shapiro shows that the story could have been investigated far more rigorously. Shapiro unraveled the loose threads in the Rolling Stone story by doing what journalists should always do: Make one more phone call. Do one more interview. Ask one more question. Dig. Dig. Dig.

Had a story such an issue critical to women and men alike been done properly, the public square would be filled with substantial, critical debate on how to end the social and cultural attitudes that condone any assault, let alone sexual assault. Instead, the issue is buried under challenges to journalistic practice and integrity.

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UPDATE: Rolling Stone has amended its editor’s note to the story:

We published the article with the firm belief that it was accurate. 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. In trying to be sensitive to the unfair shame and humiliation many women feel after a sexual assault, we made a judgment – the kind of judgment reporters and editors make every day. We should have not made this agreement with Jackie and we should have worked harder to convince her that the truth would have been better served by getting the other side of the story. These mistakes are on Rolling Stone, not on Jackie. We apologize to anyone who was affected by the story and we will continue to investigate the events of that evening.

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